Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a book that you know from the start is going to be hard in terms of subject matter, but worth it. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and it was completely deserved.
There is a fairly long build-up before the horrors, a window into “normal” life in Nigeria following independence from Britain. I was charmed by the cast of characters – largely well-off middle-class people – and their lives that were familiar (jobs in universities, trade, journalism) and yet unfamiliar (different clothes, different foods, the politics of tribes and postcolonialism).
But this is ultimately a book about war. The dates are given and I know only a very little about Nigeria, it’s that they had a civil war in the late 1960s, a war that was brutal and involved genocide and other war crimes. So I knew this book was going to some dark places, but I let myself be lulled by the peacetime stories of love, family problems and – yes – politics.
At the centre of the book are twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Their father is a Big Man, a tribal chief by name, a successful international businessman by trade. The twins were raised in luxury in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, had an expensive education and travel to England often.
Beautiful Olanna is drawn by revolutionary ideals and moves to Nsukka to work at the university and be near her lover Odenigbo, a revolutionary who gathers like-minded people in his house every night to discuss social and political problems over dinner and brandy. Plain Kainene is ever-practical and takes over part of her father’s business to support herself. She can’t believe any man could really love the ugly sister, but Richard falls for her at first sight. He is an Englishman who came to Nigeria to study ancient pots and has fallen for the country and is frustrated that he can never be truly Nigerian, with his white skin and the advantages it confers.
The other central character is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Ugwu comes from a small village with very limited education but knows that being a house boy is his chance to prove himself worthy of the girl he likes back home. Odenigbo, unusual as he is, shows kindness to his servant and educates him, even gives him his own room and a bed to sleep in.
When war does come, its effect on their lives is gradual. Everyday life is still about love, friendship, trust and betrayal. As the war worsens/gets closer it gets gradually more central to the characters’ lives.
There is a sense, inevitably, that this is about how rich (or at least reasonably well-off city-dwelling) people are affected by war, which is not necessarily how poor country folk are affected, but Adichie does try to show through minor characters how different people experience both war and the build-up to war, and also how war, when it gets really bad, is a great leveller of rich and poor. When money is no longer worth anything, when everyone has fled their homes with a handful of clothes and little else, are rich people really any better off than anyone around them? Perhaps, in that they are more likely to know people – useful people who can things, messages, news. And even when money is supposedly worthless and there’s supposedly nothing to buy with it, there is always someone who can be bribed.
There is a surreal sequence at the height of the war when Richard goes to meet a pair of American journalists, to act as their guide and translator. Of necessity he takes them only to relatively safe places and feeds them decent food paid for by the government. They complain that it doesn’t seem that bad. Then Richard goes home to a place where even rice is a rare luxury, where children catch and roast lizards to fend off starvation.
The title, by the way, refers to the flag of the short-lived nation Biafra, the south-eastern region of Nigeria where all the main characters live. Their anthem was “Land of the Rising Sun” and their motto “Peace, Unity, Freedom” – which sadly never came. The region still suffers from ethnic and religious violence.
This book is brilliant and sad and warm and heartbreaking. It’s an important reminder of the best and worst of humanity. Thank you once again to Amy Reads for recommending it to me.
First published 2006 by Fourth Estate.
UPDATE: See also this review by Amy of Amy Reads. Plus you can listen to an episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to June 2009.