Friday, March 28, 2008

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007, Harper Perrenial 433 pages. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007.




This book is based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 –70 and I’m old enough to remember hearing about it at the time. Then I had little idea what it was all about – now I understand a bit more. Nigeria became a Republic in October 1960 and Half of a Yellow Sun begins in the early 1960s in Nsukka in the south eastern area where Ugwu becomes Odenigbo’s houseboy. The story centres on these two characters and Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner, her twin sister Kainene and her partner Richard. Odenigbo is a professor at the University and his house is the meeting place for academics who debate the political situation as it leads up to violence and the secession of Biafra as an independent state. The title of the book comes from the symbol on the Biafran flag, which was half of a yellow sun.

The novel moves forwards and backwards in time between the late and early1960s as the civil war proceeds. Focussing on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people, it brings home the horrors brought about by war, the ethnic, religious and racial divisions and the suffering that results. Ugwu at the start of the book is an ignorant young teenager from a poor village eager to learn but still steeped in the superstitions of his family – the old ways. By the end of the novel he has become a valued member of the family and is writing a history of his country. Richard, the white man in love with Kainene but not fully accepted into her world, is eager to be considered Biafran, but is still on the outside. He is in Nigeria studying African art – the Igbo-Ukwu roped pot - and is recruited into writing articles about the war for the outside world, but the story of the war is Ugwu’s to tell and not Richard’s. Olanna’s family is wealthy and even though they are Igbo, they cannot understand her relationship with Odenigbo who is committed to the Igbo cause and would prefer her to marry Madu, a major in the Biafran army. Once the war starts they are all drawn into the conflict, the situation spirals out of their control and they each react in differing ways.

The book explores the conflicts between nationalities, different cultures, different backgrounds and upbringing, between what is traditional and tribal and what is new. Although the violence and deprivations of the war are horrifying and form the dominant element in the story this is not just a war novel. It is also a novel about love and relationships, between parents and children as well as between men and women; about how people learn to adapt and cope with life.

I found the characters to be real, so much so that I could imagine I was there in the thick of things. I sympathised with Richard in his efforts to be accepted and suffered with Olanna when she was confronted with the horror of war and grieved over the plight of the refugees. It reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which I read about 10 years or so ago and Adichie writes of his novels in an article at the end of her book:

“Achebe’s war fiction then, humane and pragmatic as it is, becomes a paean to the possibilities that Biafra held. The stories have an emotional power that accumulates in an unobtrusive way and stuns the reader at the end; there are sentences in them that will always move me to tears.”

She writes of her own work:

“If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it.”

How well she has succeeded. Half of a Yellow Sun is an emotional book without being sentimental, factual without being boring, and I was completely absorbed in it to the end.

4 comments:

Maw Books said...

I have not ever seen a bad review of this book. I just checked it out from the library and it's waiting for me to start (have to finish my other book first). I can't wait. Thanks for the great review!

Sarah said...

I was similarly impressed by Half of a yellow sun. I found the ending devastating.

I've been meaning to read Adichie's first novel Purple Hibiscus, but haven't got around to it yet. Have you?

BooksPlease said...

Maw Books I do hope you enjoy it as much as I did - I was sorry I hadn't read it earlier.

Sarah, I didn't mention the end, I kept hoping it wouldn't turn out like that, but I suppose it was inevitable. I haven't read Purple Hibiscus yet, but I'd love to read it soon.

Lezlie said...

I just finished 'Things Fall Apart' and loved it. I'll be keeping an eye out for this one!

Lezlie