Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Our book group read this month was one of those archetypal earnest stories featuring real events that can generate great discussions.
This novel takes place in 1960s Nigeria before and during the Nigerian-Biafran war which started in 1967. It follows the lives of two sisters, their lovers, and a young houseboy.
Odenigbo is a Professor at Nsukka University and has a new houseboy Ugwu who is thirteen and eager to please. The professor’s girlfriend is the beautiful Olanna, who comes from a rich family in Lagos – she could have married the rich playboy Mohammed, but chose the contrasting ideals of Odenigbo. Her twin sister Kainene considers herself the ugly one, but she has charisma and a can-do attitude. Kainene’s boyfriend is Richard, a white Englishman who came to Nigeria to study the native art of the Igbo people. Ugwu meanwhile almost becomes part of the family and is very protective of his Olanna and their child in particular.
Life is easy on the university campus in 1963, and the academics get together to drink, discuss Nigeria’s worsening political situation and put the world to rights in the evenings. A few years later however, revolution arrives, hundreds are massacred including Olanna’s beloved auntie. They are forced to flee and live as refugees in the new Igbo Republic of Biafra, with its emblem of the half a yellow sun.
The book is written in four parts alternating between periods before and during the war, which cleverly allows Adichie to explain later in part three, things which happened between parts one and two, and similarly with part four set towards the end of the war. This slight playing with the timeline of this novel, kept the plot moving and giving a sense of tension that there was more to reveal.
We felt that many of the characters were rather stereotypical: Odenigbo and his university colleagues; Richard the white man who wants to be black; certainly Olanna’s parents who decamped to London; even Olanna herself. In contrast, Kainene was genuinely interesting being as chalk and cheese with her twin sister. Ugwu grows up into a young man during the book, and felt totally genuine to us; indeed it is ultimately his story at the heart of the novel.
In our book group, the oldest of us were only children when the Nigerian-Biafran war occurred, but the images of babies suffering from Kwashiorkor – advanced malnutrition persist – the Biafran War was probably the first time that this type of picture was shown around the world. We had a wide-ranging discussion about civil war in African, the effects of post-colonialism, partition, tribal and religious conflicts, the famine in Ethiopia, and more – I told you this was a book that provoked great discussion.
We all agreed that although it was a hard book to read with its brutal war sequences, it was a good one. None of us had read much, if any, African literature before, and would be open to read more – I plan to read Chinua Achebe’s novel Things fall apart for starters.
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