Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been on my shelf for a while. I was leant it by a friend and have been feeling bad about having kept it for so long. Lately, I’ve seen Adichie’s name mentioned in a lot of the media I read and it inspired me to pick it up. I can’t say why it has sat there unread for so long, except that I thought it might be heavy-going.
I was wrong. It is a beautiful read. Half of a Yellow Sun depicts the Nigerian civil war in the years just after independence from the British Empire and the short-lived existence of Biafra through the point of view of three very different characters. Ogwu is a village boy who gets a job as a house-boy to a university professor with radical views. He grows up in awe of learning and listening to the political debate his master and friends engage in. When the war comes he’s torn between looking after the family and becoming a soldier. He’s forcibly conscripted and his experience is horrific. Olanna is the daughter of a wealthy business man and was educated in London. She loves Ogwu’s professor despite her family’s disapproval. When times are easy she seems to struggle to navigate her relationships but when times are hard she’s the one that holds it all together. Richard is a white man that comes to Africa to escape his family. Before Nigeria becomes independent he thinks he has a good position. He loves Igbo art and culture, almost to the point of fetishizing it, and finds it’s purest expression in Kainene, who is Olanna’s twin. He rejects British expatriate culture and embraces Nigerian culture. After independence he finds that no one trusts him, but he stays in Biafra and doesn’t leave even after Kainene dies.
This is a big book in many ways. There is so much in it. As well as the three point of view characters there is a host of secondary characters that pop out of the page. Characterisation is good. Everyone in it is real. It’s a literary novel so it is heavy on narrative. Generally I like more action-driven books, but when the literary genre is done well it is amazing. This is done very well. The narrative builds the setting and the characters and brings the world to life rather than weighing the story down with exposition. I knew very little about this time and period of history – African decolonisation after WWII was my favourite class at university but we covered a lot in low detail – and I really enjoyed being educated about it. It was moving. I laughed and I cried. Mostly I cried.
There are some books that are so good I feel like giving up writing because I could never produce anything anywhere near as good. This is one of those books.