Title: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Genre/Themes: Literary, Biafran War / Nigerian Civil War, War, Violence, War Crimes, Rape, Loss, Despair, Hope, Betrayal, Family Division
Blurb from Goodreads
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.
“The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with the frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die.”
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of ordinary people in Nigeria during the 1960s; the time just before the Nigeria-Biafra war and during the war itself. It is an unflinching account of the tolls war takes on regular people. We see good people do good things and good people do bad things. That’s the thing about war, it changes everyone. No one knows how they will come out the other side…or if indeed they will come out the other side.
I loved this book. I just utterly loved it.
Loved loved loved LOVED!!
Just…. it was just breath taking…. I don’t know how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does it but this is my second time reading a novel by her and this is my second time giving her a five star rating…
My emotions are all over the place after this book.
I have so many feelings, this book DESTROYED me!!!
UTTERLY destroyed me!!!!!!!!!!!!
I loved these characters and at times I hated them, I hated what war did to them….I HATED THIS BOOK!!!
Okay blatant lie…but OH MY GOD DID IT MAKE ME FEEL SO VERY MUCH!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh there were times when I thought my heart would burst…
Okay I shall endeavour to calm down and make some sort of sense with this review…
You will have to forgive my knowledge of Nigerian history, it is very limited but this is my basic understanding of the background to the Nigerian Civil War. Please correct me if I am wrong.
Nigeria in the 1960s was just extricating itself from British colonial rule. However, it was a country that was made up of a multitude of different ethnic groups including the Igbo in the South East, the Yoruba in the South West and North Central, and the Hausa in the North. Despite gaining its freedom there was still a great deal of influence from Nigeria’s colonisers who wanted to maintain a hand in its resources and these influences had a strong hold in the Northern-dominated federal government. A civil war broke out in the years 1967 to 1970 when the Republic of Biafra was declared in the south east.
“The real tragedy of a postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”
Half of a Yellow Sun begins in the early 1960s and we are introduced to a poor, young Igbo boy named Ugwu. Ugwu has just been employed as a houseboy for the ‘Master’, a man called Odenigbo.
Odenigbo is middle class and a maths professor at the university in Nsukka. He is also a radical. Every evening he and his friends partake in political debate and he takes Ugwu under his wing and encourages him to read.
Soon after beginning working for the Master, Olanna, Odenigbo’s lover comes to live with them. Olanna is the daughter of a wealthy Lagos businessman and she has been educated in London.
The book also introduces us to Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. Where Olanna is incredibly moralistic and passionate with her heart, Kainene is more closed-off, more protected. Kainene is in a relationship with a British man called Richard.
The story that follows builds up to the Nigerian civil war…. We see the romantic relationships of these characters in happier pre-war times;
“This was love: a string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.”
We see the closeness of the sisters, the education of Ugwu, we see the development of friendships, the daily on-goings of regular life but we are always keenly aware of the political unrest ticking away underneath the surface and when the massacres of the Igbo people in 1966 begin life for our main characters changes irrevocably.
When I read those scenes I felt so physically ill….just gut wrenching….
Loyalties are then tested, bonds are broken and the once close group of characters splinters apart. To see a family divided… War… what it does to people… oh there are no words…
“After the rally, she and Odenigbo drove to the staff club. Students had gathered on the hockey field nearby, burning paper effigies of Gowon around a glowing bonfire; the smoke curled into the night air and mixed with their laughter and chatter. Olanna watched them and realised with a sweet surge that they all felt what she felt, what Odenigbo felt, as though it were a liquid-steel instead of blood that flowed through their veins, as though they could stand barefoot over red-hot embers.”
No one comes out unscathed from war.
And that is well evidenced in this novel. We see wrong doings on all sides…colonial interference, genocide and starvation as war tactics on one side, and atrocities committed against their own people on the other.
No one is blameless.
Adichie doesn’t shy away from showing the violence and excessive cruelty committed against the every-day ordinary citizen.
At a more personal level there is betrayal among our characters: they make good decisions, and bad decisions. The family rips apart. The book tells of youths becoming soldiers, people feeling trapped… There is so much hopelessness, depression, anger, hatred, love, loyalty, forgiveness… This book demonstrates the complexities of what it means to be human and how war makes us both unhuman and even more human at the same time. Again, no one is ever blameless after war.
“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable”
Adichie writes such vivid multi-layered characters.
No one is perfect, no one is idealised; they are all utterly human and fallible.
In this book characters you have fallen in love with will test that love; this book will hurt your soul…as Adichie says in her author’s note ’agha ajoka’, war is very ugly.
I wept openly reading this book. I loved the characters fiercely and I experienced pain and suffering with them. This is all down to Adichie’s wonderful writing. She showed me as a reader the horribleness of the Nigerian civil war through personal tragedies. So I connected wholeheartedly with all the characters and their plight.
“Is love this misguided need to have you beside me most of the time? Is love the safety I feel in our silences? Is it this belonging, this completeness?
Ugwu however, was my personal favourite. I loved him. Here was a young boy just trying to make his way in the world and to be caught up in war and politics and see how it changed him, scarred him… See the decisions he made, decisions he did not make… No character has ever made me feel as much as he did. He made me feel love, he made my heart sore and then he took it and crushed it and rebuilt it once more… I just can’t explain it, you have to read this book.
“…the casual cruelty of this new world in which he had no say grew a hard clot of fear inside him.”
A quote from the book that I want to share regards the character Richard. Richard is British and a writer. On one occasion he meets with other Western journalists who are writing about the civil war but becomes greatly disillusioned by them when they ask for more information about the death of a foreign national. This passage haunted me…it sadly rings so true.
“Richard exhaled. It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wants to know if there is anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: 100 dead black people equal one dead white person.”
To me when someone says Biafra I think about starvation. I think about why Médecins Sans Frontières was founded. I think about all those horrible photographs of malnourished children. At the beginning of the book we see middle-class Odenigbo and upper class Olanna and Kainene as having plenty of food…the latter stages of the book drastically contrasts this and we are shown how the people in the Republic of Biafra were left to starve, how food channels were cut off from them. Children suffered from kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition and were left to die in refugee camps.
“Kainene took the baby inside and gave it to another woman, a relative of the dead woman whose bony body was quivering; because her eyes were dry, it took Olanna a moment to realise that she was crying, the baby pressed against her flattened, dry breasts.”
The struggles of Olanna to attempt to get food for her family are particularly harrowing. We see a once proud woman beg and risk her life over a simple tin of corned beef…
It was shocking, moving, horrific…all of the above.
“…his eyes saw the future. And so she did not tell him that she grieved for the past…”
Okay maybe I’ve made this book sound so negative as if it is all doom and gloom…
But the human spirit is resilient.
And good God are these characters and these people ever so resilient!
So while they live through the most extreme horrors this book is also strangely uplifting in that people rising from the ashes kind of way. Never underestimate the strength of character of the oppressed.
To me this is a book about forgiveness; forgiveness between peoples and between individual people.
It is a book about healing divisions and reuniting what was once splintered and broken.
Oh this book….. I know I’ve probably over quoted in this review but I just could not help myself…and there are so many more passages and quotes that I wanted to use…..
I JUST LOVE THIS BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
It was well written, well researched, had a wonderful plot, characters that felt alive, stories that made my heart burst…I just loved it and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to any reader.
“She told them about the Biafran flag. They sat on wooden planks and the weak morning sun streamed into the roofless class as she unfurled Odenigbo’s cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the north, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.”
Other Works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I’ve Reviewed
- Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
- Purple Hibiscus
- The Thing Around Your Neck
- Various Short Stories
- We Should All Be Feminists