Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A bloody sun rising. 

About Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi:
With her award-winning debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was heralded by the Washington Post Book World as the “21st century daughter” of Chinua Achebe. Now, in her masterly, haunting new novel, she recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria during the 1960s. 

With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.

My two cents

When I saw this book's author and read the synopsis, I had a strange compulsion to turn the other way. The tough subject matter, and a time in history I know nothing about intimidated me. I even asked someone I knew what they thought of it - she said that it's one of those books you read but are glad it's over when you finish it. Did I want to be challenged? So much for me turning away; I decided to just go for it. The payoff did come, believe me, but not without feeling the horrors of war.

The story delves into the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War. I confess to total ignorance and I had no idea whether Biafra was a country or a state so I ended up reading up on Wikipedia before diving into the book. Here's what I found out:
  • Biafra is a state in south-eastern Nigeria and was in existence from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970
  • Biafra is a secessionist state. "Secessionist" simply means that a group pulled out from a larger group. In this case, the Igbo people fought for secession from Nigeria because of the economic, cultural and religious tensions amongst the ethnic groups. 

The Biafran war is given a human face through several main characters: middle class academic Odenigbo and his lover-later-wife Olanna, the teenager Ugwu coming from an impoverished family and works for Odenigbo as a houseboy, socialite and businesswoman Kainene and her English lover Richard.

The substories are very different as they are told by different classes and even a foreigner is thrown in for good measure. Odenigbo is a professor at Nsukka University, a brilliant mind, a nationalist and revolutionary at heart. Olanna and Kainene are twin sisters from a politically powerful (and hence moneyed) family; while Olanna is known as the pretty and intellectual one, Kianene is the "ugly one" but a strong and savvy businesswoman. Richard is an Englishman who came to Nigeria to learn more and write about traditional pots that he is rather impassioned about. Lastly, Ugwu is a young teenage boy who finds himself in this circle of middle-class characters, and comes of age during this critical historical time.

Their lives play out flipping from present to past and back, a journey into these characters lives pre-war, war and post-war. You'll read the roles they play in inciting uprisings, the idealism, the passion. You'll find out how cultural differences among ethnic groups drive a wedge between people. You'll see how event the strongest people play each other for influence, and succumb to corruption as a means of survival. You'll see how expats view this melee and how some not only support but feel one with it.


One strange thing that the past-present story flipping does is that there are strange holes in the stories.  So scratch your head and wait because your patience will pay off.  The questions will  eventually get answered.

If you think you've read about war, don't bet on it. This is replete with graphic descriptions of violence, rape, brutality, extreme poverty and hunger. There is nothing pretty about war. No matter how much I read about war in general, I always feel slightly sick when reading about the pain, the sorrow and brutality it inflicts on people.

Verdict: This is a realistic portrayal of war set in Nigeria. Don't bring any preconceptions about Africa as stereotypes you may hold about African cultures and politics are unabashedly exposed. Be ready for a gutwrenchingly brutal story of what zealous patriotism can result in for a country and the lives of its peoples. The impacts are lasting and real despite this being a fictionalized retelling.

I am eager to continue challenging myself to read outside my comfort zone. While I cannot say that I "enjoyed" this in a traditional sense, I highly recommend this book and this author. It's an affecting story that sheds light on a critical historical period in the world. 

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall