Half of a Yellow Sun

This Orange Prize-winning novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes place in the 1960s, chronicling the years before and during the Nigerian civil war that created the short-lived nation of Biafra. Adichie follows five characters in a non-linear time frame — pre-war, war, pre-war, war — to build a story that shows not just the futility of war but, unexpectedly, the complexity of it. This is a story that shows the way war forces people to grow and progress, not only in their own way of seeing the world, but in their relationships with others, with lovers, with family, with strangers.

The novel opens in the early sixties, with Ugwu, a boy from a rural village who has come to Nsukka to be a houseboy for Master. He is wide-eyed at the luxury he sees around him — wooden furniture! Meat every day! Books lining the walls! Master (who refuses to be called Master) turns out to be Odenigbo, a Nigerian revolutionary intellectual, eccentric behind his glasses, gathering a group of other professors and poets around him, calling for political reform. Odenigbo is in love with Olanna, a beautiful woman who grew up petted and pampered, but who no longer wishes to live her caged life and has joined Odenigbo’s revolutionary cause. Olanna’s non-identical twin sister is Kainene, sardonic, aloof, and business-minded, as different from Olanna as it is possible to be, and yet the two revolve around each other, sparring and tender by turns. And Kainene’s lover is Richard, a white British writer, who sees himself as Nigerian despite his inevitable status as an outsider.

These relationships are never static in Adichie’s hands. Even before the war, she has a profound understanding of the way small things can shift within a couple’s understanding of each other, or between sisters, and can cause rifts or bonds to change. When Odenigbo’s mother comes to visit and calls Olanna a witch who has ensnared her son, Olanna is furious that Odenigbo won’t stand up for her. But the conflict causes them both to want to cement their relationship:

In the morning, Odenigbo woke her up by taking her finger in his mouth. She opened her eyes; she could see the smoky light of dawn through the curtains.

“If you won’t marry me, nkem, then let’s have a child,” he said. …

Olanna had wanted to give the scent of his mother’s visit some time to diffuse before telling him she wanted to have a child, and yet here he was, voicing her own desire before she could. She looked at him in wonder. This was love: a string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.

But the war interrupts miracles of this or any other sort. Adichie writes about the massacres that sparked the revolution, and then first thrill of the secession: the exhilaration of the new Biafra — the rising sun of the title is on the new flag –and the certainty that the world is watching in awe at their strength and boldness. Then the reality of war settles in: evacuation, refugee camps, starvation, shelling, corruption. The loss of their friends, one by one, and the death of so many strangers around them. The loss of the certainty of winning, which had buoyed them from the beginning. Their relationships change more profoundly: some become helplessly distant, while others become far more deeply entwined. As Kainene says at one point, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” Ugwu performs horrifying acts as a conscript that eventually make him understand himself and change; Richard may never understand that his own chameleon’s deep desire to belong is all that is blocking his ingrained racism.

The trajectories of the characters are quite different. Olanna, who began at a comfortable and hypothetical remove from politics, is the first to see the reality of what revolutionary rumbles may mean when she sees her aunt, uncle, and pregnant cousin killed in the Igbo massacres. While she becomes hard and strong in the war, Odenigbo’s ideals are crushed, and he turns to drinking. “You’re so strong, nkem,” he says, late in the book, and she’s saddened: he would never have said that before the war.

This notion of change and the possibility of change underlies the entire novel. Adichie does not offer the facile notion that good will come out of evil or that all is meant for the best, but she does allow her characters to believe, and sometimes to choose, that life can come after a terrible situation. This hard path is sketched early on when Olanna makes a startlingly difficult and generous gesture after a terrible rupture between her and Odenigbo: life returns, and their story continues, though in an unexpected direction. Life, for Adichie, is a narrative, a story, a hope.

This is a tremendous novel. It is so well-written and engaging that I spent every spare moment reading it. I didn’t know a thing about the politics of it before reading it, and I was completely drawn into it; the characters and the setting became as familiar to me as — oh — 19th-century Devonshire, where I also don’t live. I’m fairly sure I got the recommendation for this book from Eva, and I can’t thank her enough. It’s stunning, and moving, and beautiful, and you should read it too.

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13 Responses to Half of a Yellow Sun

  1. Alex says:

    This is one of those books that never really leaves you. I read it when it first came out, then again a couple of years later with my book group and then last year gave it as my World Book Night book to a couple of dozen families at our local school simply because I wanted to share it with as many people as possible. All this despite the fact that the first emotion the book provoked in me was one of shame. I lived through the Biafra war. I remember the terrible pictures that came out, especially of starving and mutilated children and yet in the intervening years I had managed to tuck those images away in the back of my mind and forget all about them. More than anything I am grateful to Adichie for forcing me to face the truth of that time again.

    • Jenny says:

      The book really struck me as being able to strike a balance between a very complex war and the personalities within it. Some of the best things I’ve read about Africa do that, like Cry, the Beloved Country. I’d like to read more.

  2. gaskella says:

    We read this book in our book group, and found it generated a fantastic and wide-ranging discussion. The book brought alive this terrible time in African history and everyone agreed it was enlightening and compulsive reading.

    • Jenny says:

      Having just read Birdsong (and having had a hard time getting through it), I was delighted to find what compulsive reading it was. I really wanted to spend more time with all these people, despite the difficult circumstances.

  3. This is one of my absolutely favourite books, so I was pleased to see that you really enjoyed it. Like you, I knew nothing of the politics of the situation before reading it and the book made a big impact on me.

    • Jenny says:

      I think it reflects the situation in many countries post-independence, which is heartbreaking — yet the individuals are unique, which is also always going to be the case. That’s what the best fiction can do.

  4. Half of a Yellow Sun made me see and experience first hand the Biafran war and its myriad implications for Nigeria. indeed, the seccesion, though brief had dire repercussions, even today as the country is now plagued with christian-islam geo-political divide and deep serious conflict that threatens to overwhelm the nation once more. The novel comes highly recommended. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree that this book made me see the politics of the area, but through individual eyes. I was really impressed with Adichie’s almost gentle hand with the terrible suffering, and her clear-eyed implications for the future.

  5. aartichapati says:

    Wow, your review brought this to life for me, but the comments show that clearly, EVERYONE loves this book. I read What is the What a few years ago, which was about the war in Sudan, and was very painful (but important) to read. I think this is going to be similar.

    • Jenny says:

      Saying that this is an “important” book makes it sound kind of heavy-handed, like you “should” read it for your own good. I would just say this was a really good book! I was totally caught up in it for days, like any great novel. I think it is important, but it’s actually also just wonderful.

  6. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

  7. softdrink says:

    “It’s stunning, and moving, and beautiful, and you should read it too.”

    Yep. That’s it in a nutshell.

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