Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
This novel, Half of a Yellow Sun by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, is unusual but the reason for the book’s popularity becomes apparent within a few pages of reading: it is extremely good.
It is set in Nigeria, Africa during the 1960’s and deals with the troubled period around the time of the secession of Biafra and the war that follows. The book was recommended to me by my friend Mary. She did so with the proviso that, much of the detail of the suffering endured by the people during the war between Nigeria and Biafra, was harrowing, a real disgrace. This was certainly true.
The story opens before the war, shortly after Nigeria wins independence from the UK, when middle-class life at Nsukka University is rich in food, booze, revolutionary rhetoric and hope. Ugwu moves from the country to become the houseboy to an eccentric but charming academic at the University. It is narrated from the point of view of the three main characters. Ugwu, Olanna who is the wife of Ugwu’s master and Richard: the Englishman with whom Olanna’s twin sister lives.
The reader experiences the daily lives of the people through the eyes of the three characters . It is also through them that the violence, privations and terrors of the war are witnessed. However, the reader does not know any more than the characters know. As a result of this when the characters do not allow themselves to disbelieve the prospect of Biafran triumph. Only the reader with some knowledge of the history of the period will know better.
The author imposes a strict structure. Each chapter of Half of a Yellow Sun is told from a single viewpoint, and each break between chapters involves a shift to the viewpoint of a different character. Ugwu’s point of view is crucial. It is with his experience that the book begins and he also draws the story to a close. He is also the character most changed and corrupted by the evils of the war. When he is coerced into joining the Biafran army the reader observes his moral decline from taking part in a successful skirmish with Nigerian troops and, dubbed “Target Destroyer” by his fellow soldiers to his involvement in a gang rape of a girl in a bar. This very disturbing scene is clearly depicted and contrasted with earlier descriptions of Ugwu’s teenage fantasies, shame and sexual exploits. When the war is over and he returns to his family, he learns about of the gang rape of his own sister by Nigerian soldiers. Only Ugwu himself and the reader know just why he sobs so heavily and with such shame.
The increasing difficulties that Olanna and her family endure are unrelenting. The reader travels with them from the comfort of their home in Nsukka where they entertain friends and colleagues regularly. The family are complacent about the security of their social position and intellectual freedoms. We follow them from their comfortable home all the way to one scruffy room where the kitchen and bathroom are shared with numerous others and back to their home when they return after the war. We despair with Olanna as she queues for basic food from international aid agencies and learns to make soap from ash. The reader shares her pain when she returns to her home but it has been trashed by marauding forces. Olanna and Ugwu strive to return the property to its former glory.
Richard, from England, lives with Olanna’s twin sister and is the third narrator. He has an earnest interest in Nigerian art and history and comes to understand Igbo after he moves in with Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene. The reader experiences increasing disillusionment as Richard endures the disintegration of society in Biafra, his adopted country. We also feel his guilt and despair about Kainene’s death.
The author makes this forgotten war real again. She makes the reader aware of the tragedy behind the statistics. Although the book finishes somewhat abruptly after the war, I hesitate to complain that the final chapters seem rushed because I enjoyed the novel and found it surprisingly easy to read. Half of a Yellow Sun is impressive as a testament to human gentleness as well as cruelty. It is definitely worth reading. I highly recommend it.
- Posted in: Book Reviews
- Tagged: Africa, army, author, Biafra, Biafran, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, corrupted, death, disgrace, disillusionment, England, Englishman, fantasies, gang rape, Half of a Yellow Sun, Nigeria, Nigerian, Nsukka University, Olanna, privations, recommend, Richard, sexual exploits, Shame, suffering, tragedy, Ugwu, UK, Valerie Penny, violence, war