So the movie for this book is supposed to be out in Nigeria but its not, due to some major unfortunate BS, Si decided to satisfy my brain and all my crazy alter egos by writing this.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s luminous and formidable talent was first seen in Purple Hibiscus, her 2004 novel, which won a Commonwealth writers’ prize and was shortlisted for the Orange prize. Her second novel, half of a Yellow Sun, takes its title from the Biafra period, the breakaway state in eastern Nigeria that survived for only three years, and whose name became a global byword for war by starvation. Adichie’s powerful focus on war’s impact on lives, and the trauma beyond the trenches, earns this novel a commonwealth writer’s prize. While reading this book, sometimes I’m introduced to a hidden gem, and other times I suffer through a complete dud. The one constant thing that makes everything worth my while is that I am continually exposed to material that would have otherwise escaped my notice. I tend to collect American literature; the scarlet letter, or books by Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw and many more fantasy and romance books. In this instance, Half of a Yellow Sun gave me the kick in the pants I needed to begin my foray into African literature.
I actually prefaced my reading of this book with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a smart move on many levels for me. Achebe is widely regarded as the first example of modern African literature; Adichie is commonly referred to as his literary daughter. Both Things Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun deal with pivotal points in Nigerian history (the introduction of colonialism and the Biafra war, respectively), and I appreciated how the issues raised by Achebe’s book helped to give a wider perspective to this novel.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictional retelling of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War (1967-1970) through the eyes of a small handful of characters. The particular selection of these characters was impressive, as they represented a broad cross-cut of experience: a houseboy raised in the tribal swamps of the Nigerian Delta; twin daughters of an African shipping magnate; a radical university professor; and a white writer whose love causes him to become entwined in the Biafran struggle.
The plot becomes quite upsetting, as many atrocities were committed on both sides in this gruesome war. It’s certainly not a read for the faint of heart. What makes this particular novel worth reading, though, is that it refuses to become a jeremiad. There is weeping and wailing, but the intent is not bitter lamentation. It unerringly remains an exploration of the human condition, a remembrance of an event which should not be forgotten.
In terms of story elements, among the protagonists are Odenigbo, or “the Master”, a radical math’s lecturer at the University of Nsukka – in what became the secessionist Igbo land – and Ugwu, the village teenager who becomes his houseboy, but whom he enrolls at the university staff school. A novel that descends into dire hunger begins with Ugwu’s devoted creativity in the kitchen, confecting pepper soup, spicy jollof rice and chicken boiled in herbs
One angle that quickly won me over was the character arc of Ugwu, the houseboy. He is introduced to us as a superstitious and naïve bumpkin with little experience of the world beyond his tiny village in the swamps of the delta. Adichie handles his character with wonderful delicacy, without ever demeaning or criticizing his outmoded cultural beliefs. His gradual development allows him to act as a cultural buffer between the modern sensibilities of the urbanites and the superstitions of his home village, providing the reader with an incredible window into what makes the hearts of the Igbo people beat.
Ugwu’s domain is encroached upon by Odenigbo’s lover, Olanna, the London-educated daughter of a “nouveau riche” businessman in Lagos, and the household is later disrupted by its links with Olanna’s periodically estranged twin sister Kainene and her English boyfriend, Richard.
It might sound horrible of me to admit this, but I truly think that the addition of the white Western writer (Richard) to the cast of characters was a stroke of genius by Adichie in embracing a global audience. Through Richard’s character, I experienced a swell of emotions that hit me like a sledgehammer, between extremes of violent anger, stunned disbelief and impotent despair. I know that this book will stay with me whenever I think about the lack of Western attitudes toward African struggles. Adichie managed to strike a chord in me that I think shall never remain silent. While Richard identifies with Biafra and intends to write the history of the war, it is Ugwu who takes up the pen and the mantle. As Richard concedes, “The war isn’t my story to tell really,” and Ugwu nods. “He had never thought that it was.”
I can also pretty much guarantee that once you find out why the book is titled Half of a Yellow Sun, the reason will be burned in your memory forever. And despite my complete ignorance of the relevant historical events, the simplicity of story and complexity of character made everything work for me on multiple levels. Many of the events recounted in the novel also have a ring of truth that could only have come from personal experience. Adichie was born well after this war ended, but you can tell that she is surrounded by living memory. These ingredients make for a compelling reading experience that remains highly accessible to a novice such as me.