I think it bodes well for 2009, at least for my reading, that the first book I read will
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not about the Biafra war. It’s a family drama set before and during the Biafra war. It is to Ms. Adichie’s great credit that the reader does not have to know anything about the setting or the events of the war; her story will tell us all we need to know without trying to teach us outright.
There are five main characters. Central to the story are two sisters, twins, Olanna and Kainene, daughters of privilege with very wealthy parents and the best educations money can buy. Olanna gives up her wealth to become the mistress of Odenigbo, a passionate, young professor who holds regular salons where the issues of the day and plans for the future of post-colonial Nigeria are discussed. Kainene takes an Englishman, Richard, as her lover. Richard, who is white, can move among the inner circle of the Europeans who continue to live in Nigeria after Independence. He is also fluent enough in African languages and customs to achieve a quasi-insider status among Kainene’s circle. The fifth character is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, who provides a window into village life and the lives of the lower classes in 1960’s Nigeria.
The family drama that plays out among these five characters would be sufficient to fill a lesser novel. But this story is set in 1960’s Nigeria, and the characters are all Igbo, even Richard initially stayed in Africa to study Igbo artifacts. In the 1960’s, violence broke out between the largely Christian Igbo in Southern Nigeria and the Muslim Huasa in the north. The Igbo were brutally massacred in several northern locations and forced to flee to the southern part of the country. In response, they declared independence, and set up the country of Biafra. Nigeria, went to war to reunite the country and bring the land of Biafra, and the oil underneath it, back into the fold. Nigeria was supported by most of the world including England and Russia. Biafra was officially recognized by only a handful of African nations and never received much more than humanitarian support, and not very much of that. In spite of this, the tiny nation managed to survive for three years before finally surrendering to Nigeria.
I am not expert enough to comment on Ms. Adichie’s presentation of Biafra’s history, but as far as the novel goes, I don’t think it matters if she got all of the details correct. The broader picture is accurate, and it’s the novelistic details that really matter here–the story of how one family tried to survive famine, war and each other while the rest of the world largely turned its back and looked away.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a big novel, in the 19th century sense of the word. Ms. Adichie takes her time introducing the cast of characters to us. Each of the initial chapters is devoted to one or two characters, giving us a chance to really get to know one before we meet the next. Ms. Adichie takes her time introducing the war, as well. The book is divided into four sections that go back and forth between the early sixties, years before the war began, and the late sixties when the war took place. This works to help make an unbearable subject bearable. We need to know what the characters and their lives were like before the war began to fully appreciate what happened and how the war changed them. The Biafran war itself is rightly remembered, when it is remembered, as one of the great horrors of the 20th century. Telling that story for 200 plus pages would make for very difficult reading. The third part of the book flashes back from wartime to the more peaceful early sixties. But make no mistake, this is not a book that shys away from its subject matter. Each of the two sisters, Olanna and Kainene witnesses a very specific event that haunts them throughout the rest of the novel. Ms. Adichie is able to drive home all the terrible crimes of the Biafra war through these two events and through the changes Ugwu undergoes once he is conscripted to fight for Biafra.
I was struck by how much Half of a Yellow Sun reminded me of what I like most about Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies. Manning’s six novels are about a British couple who spend World War II in civilian jobs, he is a professor, in Yugosalvia, Greece and Egypt, one step ahead of the fighting. They are set during wartime, but they are really the portrait of a marriage. What’s memorable about Ms. Manning’s work and about Half of a Yellow Sun is the characters, their lives, their loves, their struggle to survive and to stand for their principles under great duress. Both authors write to pay tribute to the people they depict, but Ms. Adichie also writes to pay tribute to an idea, Biafra, to remind us what happened there, to make sure the world does not forget.
I first posted this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in January of 2009. As soon as I read it I knew Half of a Yellow Sun would be on my top ten list for the year, and it was. If you only read one book by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie this is the one. It’s a marvel. I’m currently reading her book of short stories The Thing Around Your Neck and hope to have a review of one up later this week. To be honest, I’m not a fan of her short fiction, but I love this novel. Americanah is also very good but so far, this is her masterpiece.