The Republic of Biafra was founded in 1967, the result of ethnic and economic conflicts among the people of Nigeria. After three years of war, during which the Nigerian government attempted to take back the fledgling state, Biafra, with its flag depicting half of a yellow sun, was no more. But its memory lives on in this novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
One of the characters in the book notes that “the world was silent when we died,” and indeed I had never heard of Biafra before reading this book. The republic began and ended before I was born, but even if I’d been alive, I wonder what I would have known about it. African wars do make the news in the U.S., but often only in the margins. The beauty of this book is that it requires no background knowledge about Biafra or Nigeria, but it avoids feeling like a primer on the war for ignorant Westerners. Adichie focuses on the human stories, showing how the politics of the time and the war itself touched these particular lives.
The chapters alternate between three central characters, whose stories are told in third person. Ugwu is a houseboy, born in poverty and proud to be working for Odenigbo, a university professor who encourages Ugwu to study invites interesting people to his home to discuss politics and revolution. Olanna, born to a wealthy family, also teaches at the university, a job she took partly so she could be close to Odenigbo. Richard, an English writer, is a frequent guest at the Odenigbo’s house who falls in love with Olanna’s sister, Kainene. Through these three characters, all from different walks of life, Adichie gives readers a multifaceted view of the war. Not all suffer equally, but the war so consumes their lives that all do suffer.
Being a war story, and one focused on the losing side, this is a grim book. There’s no way it couldn’t be. But it’s not overwhelmingly so. The characters get beaten down, but they also find a way through, learning skills they never expected they’d need and finding inner resources they never knew they had. There’s a hopefulness in the way they do get through–because these characters are no more conditioned for war than a typical American might be. In the early chapters, in fact, we see them living lives that don’t seem so very different from that of people outside Africa. This is an important book partly because it puts paid to any notion that Africans are somehow “other.” These people’s story could easily be my story. Yes, there are specific aspects of Nigerian politics of the time, particularly the colonial legacy, that brought on the war and that don’t apply to American politics today, but the people themselves felt like people you’d find almost anywhere. They just happened to live in Nigeria at the dawn of the civil war. (I realize that most of you readers probably don’t need to be told this, but I recently watched a TED Talk Adichie gave, and it reminded me of how common misconceptions about Africans are.)
Adichie deftly moves between characters in a way that kept me always wanting to read more. I never felt disappointed to leave a particular character because I knew I’d be picking up the thread involving another compelling character. That’s rare in novels structured like this one! Often, there’s at least one weak thread, but not so here. There’s also a bit of bouncing around in time that was perhaps unnecessary but raised enough questions about the characters’ paths that it made me want to read on.
This is the first novel by Adichie that I’ve read. I picked it up because I was planning to see her speak at Politics and Prose tonight, and I wanted to have read something of hers beforehand. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend the event, but I’m glad that my plans pushed me to finally read one of her books. I’m sure I’ll be reading more. Jenny read this almost exactly one year ago, so do check out her review. Ana recently did get to see her speak, and her post is one of the reasons I was so eager to see her myself. At least with each others’ blogs, we do get to have a taste of the many events we can’t attend. And of course, we get the push we need to try authors we might not have gotten to otherwise.