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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun takes the 1967-1970 war in Biafra as its backdrop, the book’s title coming from the new country’s flag and symbol of hope. We see the action through the eyes of three characters: Ugwu, a teenaged village boy brought to the university city of Nsukka to be houseboy to radical mathematics academic Odenigbo; Olanna, Odenigbo’s lover who has rejected her hugely privileged “nouveau riche” background to be with him; and Richard, the white English lover of Olanna’s twin sister Kainene who has come to the “fragile clasp” of Nigeria out of a genuine interest in the country and its art, and who loathes the typical 1960s British ex-pat experience.
The novel opens in the “early 1960s”, when Odenigbo and his friends live a comfortable life. Ironically for a story that will deal with a conflict that used starvation to horrifically successful ends, much of the early part of the book shows Ugwu learning to cook wonderful meals for the boisterous dinner parties that the professor regularly holds. We learn that Odenigbo is a idealist with a strong social conscience: he immediately gives his new houseboy access to books and sends him to the school for university staff members’ children. When Olanna arrives, back from studying and living in London, Ugwu is initally wary of her and the idea of sharing his Master’s attentions, but is quickly fiercely loyal to her thanks to her kindness and generally fascinating demeanour. Meanwhile, we learn that Olanna’s relationship with her twin sister Kainene is somewhat strained, a childhood closeness given way to an adult divergence of life courses and a lost understanding between them. Still, for the early part of the novel, they get along OK and Kainene and Richard are regular attendees at Odenigbo’s evening gatherings.
Richard is a fascinating character: more aware of Nigeria and its culture than any of his fellow white ex-pats, he is regularly appalled by some of the sweeping generalisations his compatriots come out with. He breaks away to explore the “real” Nigeria, meeting and falling in love with Kainene along the way, yet still occasionally slips into inadvertent colonial “possession” despite himself. It’s not a malicious possession, but an unthinking one: come the declaration of Biafran independence from Nigeria, he declares himself a Biafran. It is his country. He also refers to Kainene as his fiancee, and later as his wife, despite never having proposed to her. She is his woman. Of course, he is not really a Biafran in the sense that he could leave the war-zone whenever he wanted, and he is spared some of the worst violence against the Igbos because no one sees him as one. This is explicitly shown by a harrowing scene when the airport lounge he is in is attacked by non-Igbo soldiers and Richard witnesses many people – his “fellow Igbos” – slaughtered in cold blood. He might be fluent in the Igbo language and regard himself as one of them, but it is obvious no one else does.
As the novel moves into the late sixties and the war itself, each of the characters have to face the horror of the conflict. Olanna is in Kano when the Igbos are attacked, and loses her aunt, uncle, and heavily pregnant cousin in the slaughter. She escapes on a heavily packed train back to Nsukka, where one of the novel’s most heartbreaking scenes takes place. The woman she is squashed next to is holding a calabash. When eventually she shows Olanna what is inside, we see her murdered child’s head:
“The woman closed the calabash. ‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair.'”
As the country is torn apart by war, so the personal landscape is also rocked. Events take place to rock relationships; Olanna and Kainene become estranged. Every character undergoes transformation, both as a result of home events and the war.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel. It is heartbreaking, funny, hopeful despite the horror, and written with the most extraordinary skill. Even in the torrent of violence and suffering, Adichie’s narrative voice retains a calmness and a matter-of-factness that serves to heighten the reader’s reaction to the events. It is also an education, especially to someone like me who didn’t really have an understanding of Biafra and the civil war. It is something personal for Adichie, both because Nigeria is her home country (and Igbo her people), which she clearly holds a deep love for, and because her relatives were caught up in the war. She lost both her grandfathers to the war. That she has a personal connection to events yet retains her smoothness of voice is testament to her skill as a writer.
The novel will be a classic, if it’s not already. The only question left is: why did I wait so long to read it?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (London: HarperCollins, 2009 Kindle Edn) ISBN 9780007279289, RRP £2.99 on Kindle.