Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, starts out slow, as she builds her characters and the prelude half to the heart of the story, which really starts as she recounts the 1967-1970 period of the Biafra-Nigeria war. The slow and detailed build up, with flashes of colonialism, ethnic differences between the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa tribes, as well as the show, not tell approach she takes as we get to know her protagonists works well as the story reaches its crescendo. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, first published in 2003, won a Commonwealth writers prize and was shortlisted for the Orange prize. This book, Half of a Yellow Sun, was the recipient of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007, and it took the author four years to write.
Although Adichie was born in 1977, post the war, she describes in a Q&A at the end of the book, how she grew up in its shadow. Both her grandfathers died in Biafra as refugees after fleeing hometowns that had fallen to federal troops. They had both been born in the early 1900s in British-controlled Igbo land, both strong men, determined to educate their children. In her own words, she attempts to write this book because she wanted to engage with the history of Nigeria and to make sense of her present to understand “the issues that led to the war (that) remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget.”
And she succeeds.
The protagonists are Odenigbo, a radical maths professor at the University of Nsukka, his houseboy, Ugwu, his lover and later wife, Olanna, her twin sister, Kainene, and her English boyfriend, Richard. The slowness with which she details the lives of her protagonists before the war—the leisurely evenings at Ogenigbo’s where brandy flowed and other academics and poets came to visit, Ugwu’s concoctions of jollof rice and pepper soup, the London-educated Olanna and how she joins them, Olanna and Keinene’s mother, shown so shallow, with her fifty bottles of perfume, that even if she wore everyday to bed, would never run out—is a stark contrast to the hunger and depravation that follow. How Ogenigbo and Olanna endure the time of squalor in their one room, the food queues, the chasing of lizards and rats to roast, the cooking of anything that was green, the air raids, the children conscripted into war, the deadly kwashiorkor; Adichie tells a sweeping war story without an iota of self pity or crusade.
The cameo played by Harrrison, the more British than the British housekeeper of Richard, provides comic relief now and again. “You don’t know rhubarb crumble?” and he laughs. Her humour in building Harrison’s character, how he adapts to serving bush rat as if it were rack of lamb in war, his disdain for anything “native” is a welcome relief to the gory descriptions of war that are inevitable. Adichie tells the scenes as though we are watching a movie, with no insight into the mind of the characters. Her descriptions are lyrical, taking us there, into the war torn Nigeria of the sixties. The trees, laden with mangoes like heavy earrings, the sensory details of food, the later horrific ways we experience rape and malnutrition are what make her a master storyteller. And though the story is a bit slow in parts, it is definitely an amazing attempt at showing us history through the intimate lives of it’s protagonists.
Adichie’s favourite themes seem to be loyalty and betrayal. The twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, and their tenuous relationship. Olanna and Odenigbo and their straying. Even Ugwu, as he deviates from his character and participates in and thus is a complicit part of war, as he rapes a bar girl. Perhaps these humanising flaws in character also help make the characters more real. Because even her most honourable characters act out of character as the story unfolds. And that is what makes it real.
Half of a Yellow Sun shows us lives wasted, the horrifying details of war—a mother carrying her daughter’s braided head in a casket, the collarbones and protruding bellies of starvation and kwashiorkor—the quick change in people as war forces you to take sides, and the politics of oil and colonialism; it’s a clever blend of history, but also the world we live in now, and again and again, we are reminded of the mess the world is in and how we are all to blame.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is highly recommended. I can’t wait to read her other novel, Americanah, as well as her collection of twelve short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck.