Sunday, August 8, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our book group’s next book is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novel about the Nigerian-Biafran War of the late 1960s. It is a devastating book.

The stage is set with the introduction of the main characters, who live in Southern Nigeria in the early 1960s. There is political unrest and discontent. There is vast socio-economic disparity. But there is peace.

Ugwu is a thirteen-year-old boy from the villages who comes to the university city to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor with high-minded, revolutionary ideals, but who lives a wealthy “ivory tower” existence amongst fellow intellectuals. His lover, Olanna, is the good-hearted, extraordinarily beautiful daughter of a local, corrupt chief–though “chief” isn’t the correct word in that culture. Olanna has a twin sister, Kainene, who is not at all beautiful, but who is a smart, strong businesswoman who knows how to work the corrupt system. Finally, there is Richard, a British journalist/writer who comes to Nigeria for its ancient art, falls in love with Kainene, and stays throughout the war. These characters are realistic, normal people living fairly unremarkable lives.

The novel starts slowly. It has a very character-driven narrative that serves to orient readers in time and place and to make them care about the people. The characters possess various strengths and weaknesses that make them more or less likeable. The relationships shape the drama. All the while, the political tension bubbles under the surface. The people of Biafra, the Igbo, don’t want to be a part of Nigeria (a largely Hausa-Fulani population). They try to secede. When war breaks out, relative privilege shelters the main characters from the worst privations for a while. But the war is inexorable. Eventually, the true horrors of violent killings, air raids, corruption, mistrust, cruelty, and above all, famine and starvation, reach throughout Biafra and are illustrated there on the pages. 

War stories are always depressing. Yet because this one was so recent, it seemed somehow more horrific. So much preventable suffering was largely ignored by the Western world. This is compounded by the knowledge that even though the war ended, the conflict is still ongoing.

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