Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

>> Sunday, December 06, 2009

TITLE: Half of a Yellow Sun (book website)
AUTHOR: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial

SETTING: 1960s Nigeria
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: It was chosen for my book club

A masterly, haunting new novel from a writer heralded by The Washington Post Book World as "the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe," Half of a Yellow Sun recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria, and the chilling violence that followed.

With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor's beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna's twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and they must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.

Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized, Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, about class and race—and the ways in which love can complicate them all.
I must admit, I wasn't thrilled to hear this was the book I needed to read for the first month I joined the book club. For starters, it's quite a long book, and the book club meeting was some 3 days away when my friend invited me to join. Mostly, though, this just didn't sound like something I'd like at all... a saga set in a war-torn country? Hmm, not really my thing.

But given that part of my reason to join the book club in the first place was to broaden my reading and push myself outside my comfort zone, I pressed on. And I'm really, really glad I did, because Half of a Yellow Sun was truly fantastic and extremely readable. I started reading it and immediately was absorbed by the story. By the time the book club meeting took place, I'd finished it.

Set in Eastern Nigeria in the 1960s, it follows a group of people as their country heads towards and suffers through a civil war. Ugwu is a 13-year-old boy from a remote, rural small village, who joins the household of university professor Odenigbo as the book starts, and whose horizons start broadening considerably as a result

Odenigbo is one of those militant intellectuals from privileged backgrounds (and living privileged lives) who were so prevalent in the 60. I certainly knew quite a few people like that in Uruguay. His live-in lover is Olanna, a young woman from a rich and politically-connected family, for whom being Odenigbo's "mistress" is yet another form of rebellion against her family and the statu quo.

Olanna's twin, Kainene, is her opposite. She's heavily involved in running the family business interests and much more pragmatic than idealistic Olanna. Kainene becomes involved with an English writer, Richard, who's fascinated by her.

These are all interesting characters, but what I found most gripping, what kept me turning the pages, was seeing events in Nigeria unfold through their eyes. With them, we see the seemingly peaceful and well-integrated country, one with a long way to go, but with a hopeful future, disintegrate as religious and tribal tensions increase so much that the Igbo people (of whom our African characters are part) get to the point of secession, triggering a civil war. And seeing the events that way makes them more immediate, more relatable than simply reading about them in a history book.

I had only the barest knowledge of the events that take place during the book. I remember that as I was growing up during the 80s, my mom's point of reference when describing someone who was very think was "She looks like she's from Biafra", so that particular element wasn't a surprise. However, the rest of it was. I resisted the temptation to google, so although I knew things were going to get bad, the actual events were as unexpected to me as to the characters.

It sounds like a harrowing read from my description, but it reads surprisingly smoothly. There's some horrific moments that are very hard to read (and characters we love sometimes act in ways that are even harder to stomach) but as a whole, this is a very accessible, very readable book. Maybe it's because of the structure Adichie uses, which is to alternate sections from early and late in the decade. She manages to keep this from being confusing in the least, and it works so that whenever you're about to stop reading because the horrors have become too much, you're whisked to a more peaceful time, when the drama comes from the characters and their relationships, rather than war. And this might make the book easier to read, but it's no cop-out, because the genteel atmosphere of those sections makes the descent into savagery even more shocking.

An excellent book, probably the reason why we were able to discuss it for hours at the book club meeting!



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