I’m reading this book in conjunction with the Nigerian Literature Challenge hosted by the lovely Amy @ Amy Reads. I’m a day late in posting the review but here goes!
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of several characters before and during the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970. The book opens with Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old boy from a small village became a houseboy in a town called Nsukka. His master is Odenigbo, a university professor who regularly plays host to a group of friends who embarks on political discourse after a few drinks. His partner, Olanna Ozobia, with a twin named Kainene, is the daughter of a rich businessman. Ugwu very quickly love his new mistress of the house and faithfully serves the household with his wonderful cooking. The other main protagonist is Richard Churchill, an Englishman drawn to Nigeria by his interest in Igbo-Ukwu art and falls in love with Kainene. The twins have maintained a rather strange relationship, loving and hating each other at the very same time. Whilst Olanna is compliant and compassionate, Kainene takes after her father, an astute businesswoman, sharp, intelligent and acerbic.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a regular title on my local charity bookstore (along with Ian McEwan and Bill Bryson!), so it has been a long time since I am dying to read this book and find out more about the history of Nigeria. I feel closer to the country now as many of my colleagues at work are originally from Nigeria. The book tells of the struggle of Biafra in the back of all these interesting characters. So I thought I’ll look up some historical facts to put some context to the plot.
The nation of Biafra was formed when one of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, the Igbo, attempted to secede from Nigeria and establish their own country, sparks the Nigeria-Biafran war 1967-1970 – but the newly-created Republic of Biafra received little support from the rest of the world and lasted less than three years. The Biafran flag (shown to the right) consisted of red, black and green horizontal stripes, with half of a yellow sun in the middle. Political conflict between the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani people erupted into two deadly military coups. From 1968 onward, the war fell into a form of deadlock, with Nigerian forces unable to make significant advances into the remaining areas of Biafran control. Nigeria cut off humanitarian aid to Biafra, resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilians dying from starvation and disease. Many lives and resources were lost during the war; and even today there are still tensions between the different ethnic and religious groups of Nigeria.
The beginning of the book was sort of a lull for me, but I like the way Adichie has spent time to carve her characters from the start of their life stories and how they all came together. There were much more domestic squabbles, relationship issues and sibling rivalry abounds at the beginning of the book. When the war began and the protagonists have to run from city to city, the action picks up. They finally end up in the refugee town of Umuahia, where they suffer as a result of food shortages and the constant air raids and paranoid. As Olanna’s life is reduced to basic necessity and near starvation, the incident of the hungry crowd fighting for her can of corn beef was the most heart rending. There were some vivid and harrowing descriptions of war suffering and perhaps the most vivid and moving I have ever read, I thought the horrific of a civil war came through – with starvation, shelling, plundering, murders and rapes of the Biafran people.
If she had died, if Odenigbo and Baby and Ugwu had died, the bunker would still smell like a freshly tilled farm and the sun would still rise and the crickets would still hop around. The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense o f being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life. – page 351
The character of Richard offers a voice as an observer of the country and the culture and became to regard himself as a Biafran. An aspiring novelist, he uses his writing skills to propagate the Brifra cause. An excerpt of a book called : “The Book: The World Was Silent When We Died”, which I wasn’t sure if Richard or Ugwu was the one who wrote it, pops up now and again at the end of the chapter and it gave me a wave of melancholic reflection at the end of that chapter, which was good.
On the flip side, I found the structure of the book a little strange. The book starts part 1 as early sixties, then part 2 as late sixties, part 3 back to early sixties then part 4 late sixties. It moves backwards and forwards in time. The biggest confusion was to find out in part 2 that Olanna has a child called Baby and then part 3 about the birth of the child. That made me think Olanna was going to have 2 children! A bit confusing really. And the ending! Arghh… the ending. The ending is a little strange as well and not one I would like. I suppose it’s a way of leaving the story with a bit of regret and grief like how one would feel when they lost someone to the war.
My take-away from the book besides a greater understanding of the country’s history, is how fragile life is and how sometimes people did mistakes at the spur of the moment and live to regret it; and about how war reduced a decent human being to savage and performed atrocious deed that on a normal life one would never do. The book also taught me about love and forgiveness, that despite the many tribulations, one should never choose misery:
Olanna sat thinking about how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off. She thought about how ephemeral life was, about not choosing misery. She would move back to Odenigbo’s house. – page 306
Adichie offers a voice to the Biafran history that the world may have forgotten. There are a lot going on in the book, a lot of characters and a lot of good plot and story line that strings me along but there is something I can’t put a finger on what it is about the writing but it feels a little choppy and disjointed for me. Having said that, this is not a show stopper for anyone who wants to enjoy a good read. What did it for me about Half of a Yellow Sun was the fact that Adichie brilliantly evokes the uncertainty and fear that people who live through wars have to deal with on a daily basis. Like many other reviews, I’m glad that I read the book because now I have a much better understanding of the Nigerian/Biafran history and the various tribal distinction of ethnic Nigeria. This book makes me want to read more about Africa. 🙂
Today, 1 October is the Nigeria Independence Day. Happy birthday Nigeria.
Helen @ She Reads Novel: There are a few surprises at the end of the book and it certainly didn’t conclude the way I was expecting it to. I can’t really say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book but I’m glad I read it because I now have a much better understanding of this period of Nigerian/Biafran history
Amy Reads: This book took me 5 days to read, which is a lot longer than a book this size would normally take. As I said above, it truly was heartbreaking. I highly recommend it to everyone as I think it explores some really important topics as well as gives us a human view of a big event in history that is still affecting things today.
Things mean a lot: Half of a Yellow Sun is a devastating but absolutely brilliant novel. I’ll admit that the violence gave me nightmares (something that doesn’t happen very often at all), but I can’t remember the last time I was this immersed in a book, or this strongly reminded that all those news stories we hear about vaguely are things that actually happen to real human beings.
Paperback. Length: 543 pages. Publisher: Vintage Canada 2007. Source: Own. Setting: Early sixties to late sixties in Nigeria. Finished reading at: 30th September 2011.
About the writer:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born on 15 September 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria, the fifth of six children to Igbo parents, Grace Ifeoma and James Nwoye Adichie. While the family’s ancestral hometown is Abba in Anambra State, Chimamanda grew up in Nsukka, in the house formerly occupied by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Chimamanda’s father, who is now retired, worked at the University of Nigeria, located in Nsukka. He was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, and later became Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University. Her mother was the first female registrar at the same institution. Chimamanda completed her secondary education at the University’s school, receiving several academic prizes. She went on to study medicine and pharmacy at the University of Nigeria for a year and a half. During this period, she edited The Compass, a magazine run by the University’s Catholic medical students.
At the age of nineteen, Chimamanda left for the United States. She gained a scholarship to study communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia for two years, and she went on to pursue a degree in communication and political science at Eastern Connecticut State University. While in Connecticut, she stayed with her sister Ijeoma, who runs a medical practice close to the university. Chimamanda graduated summa cum laude from Eastern in 2001, and then completed a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore and a masters degree in African Studies from Yale University.
Her earlier work set in Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus, won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was also short listed for the Orange Prize.
The author has stated she believes that many of the issues that caused the war remain today. She further commented that the war is talked about “in uninformed and unimaginative ways,” and that the war is as important to the Igbo people her book features today as it was then. Because none of the major political events were changed in the book, Adichie said that the book contained “emotional truth,” and that the book showed the war had a significant impact upon the people of Nigeria.
Adichie has an illustrious career for such a young age, click here to read more about it.