Saturday, July 18, 2015

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria/Biafra in the 1960s. The story of the ill-fated attempt to create an Igbo nation in southeastern Nigeria is told through the perspective of three characters. Ugwu is a village boy who is brought to the city of Nsukka to serve as the houseboy in the home of an academic, Odenigbo, who supports Biafran independence. The beautiful Olanna is from an elite Igbo family; having just returned from receiving her master's degree at a British university, she leaves her family in Lagos to live with Odenigbo, her lover. Richard is a British expatriate, who has come to Nigeria to study local art and write, becomes the lover of Olanna's twin sister Kainene; Kainene too has recently returned from graduate school in London, but she chooses to work in her father's business, which gives her a very different life from her twin.

The novel is historical/political--for American such as myself who remember the events in Nigeria/Biafra mainly as a black-and-white photograph of a starving African child, it's a worthwhile education in the events that transpired in that part of Africa--the conflicts among the Nigerians, the role of Great Britain, the United States, and other nations. The violence, hunger, and fear of the war years are shockingly, sometimes horrifyingly conveyed. But the book is about more than war--it's also about relationships, particularly Olanna and Kainene's relationship, but also each sister's relationship with their parents and their men and Ugwu's relationships with Olanna, Odenigbo, their daughter, and various young women in whom he becomes interested.

I found the first section of the book, narrated by Ugwu, to be somewhat slow going. When I got to the next section, narrated by Olanna, I thought that perhaps the author should have started with Olanna, who seemed to bring the book alive--but the reasons for beginning with Ugwu became clearer with time. Overall, I thought the book was definitely worth reading, although sometimes difficult to endure.

Favorite passages:

This was love. A string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.

Richard exhaled. It was like somebody sprinkling pepper on his wound: Thousands of Biafrans were dead, and this man wanted to know if there was anything new about one dead white man. Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal to one dead white person.

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