Jul 22, 2010

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set in the early and in the late 1960’s in Nigeria, Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of how the lives of its three protagonists are permanently changed by the Nigerian-Biafran war. The story is told from the points of view of Ugwu, who at the age of thirteen goes to work as a houseboy for a man named Odenigbo, a university professor who’s also a passionate political activist; of Olanna, Odenigbo’s girlfriend and an educated upper-class young woman who leaves a life of luxury behind to live in the southern university town of Nsukka; and of Richard, a shy Englishman who moves to Africa to become a writer and who falls in love with Olanna’s sarcastic twin sister, Kainene.

Adichie alternates between these three characters’ points of view and moves the narrative back and forward in time, from the years leading up to the war to the time when it’s happening. This structure contributes to making Half of a Yellow Sun an extremely human and personal novel: it’s not the story of the Nigerian-Biafran war, but rather the story of how the lives of three human beings are disrupted by fear, famine, and unimaginable violence. Considering what Adichie has said about the dangers of a single story, I can’t imagine this highly subjective approach to be accidental.

The reason why these multiple points of view work so brilliantly is that these three characters are very different – they come from very different background, and they think, act, and respond to events differently, which only makes the narrative all the more personal, inclusive and human. And in addition to them, there are secondary characters that further contribute to contextualising the themes and ideas Adichie deals with here – nationhood, identity, forced boundaries, fear, class, racism, sexism, colonialism, political power games, personal relationships, betrayal, dehumanisation, and so on. The large cast of characters and the multiple storylines allow her to handle all these several complex themes seamlessly, and they prevent any of the characters from ever becoming either a stereotype or a poster child for a particular cause.

Even though Half of a Yellow Sun is told from a Biafran perspective, I thought Adichie made an honest effort to humanise all sides of the conflict. And by the way, if you have no historical background whatsoever when it comes to this war, rest assured that you’ll have no trouble at all understanding what’s happening. The short of it is that there are three large ethnic groups in Nigeria: the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the Hausa in the north (these only being three of over 250 groups with different languages and traditions, though). The short-lived nation of Biafra was created when, after a series of massacres in the north, the Igbo decided to declare independence and create their own country. The war that followed was a result of Nigeria’s successful efforts to put an end to their independence. Adichie makes all these complex political issues not only easy to follow, but also, once again, extremely personal. It’s hard to remain indifferent when you see the psychological impact of violence on characters you have grown to really care about; when you fear for their safety at the turn of every page. If reading Half of a Yellow Sun was at times an extremely distressing experience, I can hardly imagine living like this, in constant fear for your life and the lives of those you love.

Half of a Yellow Sun is an extraordinarily layered novel, and even if I sit here all day I know I’ll only be able to scratch the surface of everything it deals with. Furthermore, there’s quite a lot I simply can’t talk about without spoiling the story for you. But I wanted to share my thoughts on Richard’s storyline, which I thought was quite interesting. It can be summed up as “white guy learns to shut up”, but this might make it sound trivial when it’s really not – and Adichie tells it brilliantly. The story is about Richard without being about Richard, if this makes sense at all.

Richard grows from a clueless, na├»ve and slightly arrogant white man who dreams of speaking for a country he’s only just arrived to, and who gets defensive when his subtle condescension is pointed out to him, to, well, something else altogether. What makes him likeable from the very beginning, though, is that he’s not at all prone to thinking of people as categories. He’s much too aware of the humanity of those he meets, regardless of the colour of their skin, and he cringes at the casual racism of his friend Susan from the British Council – which of course doesn’t mean he’s above being guilty of subtler forms of racism himself. Later on, in the middle of the war, he shows two foreign journalists around and pities them for the stubbornness with which they cling to their pre-made ideas of what “Africa” and “Africans” are like. Even more importantly, he learns to listen, and realises that certain stories are simply not his to tell.

Richard’s story ties in with Ugwu’s, sadly in ways that are a bit too spoiler-y for me to write about at length. But I can say that I really liked how Ugwu’s story allowed Adichie to comment on class, and on the fact that simply treating someone as a human being can make a world of difference in how they perceive themselves and come to see the world. Ugwu is intelligent but uneducated when he comes to work for Odenigbo, and Odenigbo, who while not perfect is a man who does try to live by his leftist beliefs, simply treats him as a person. He talks to him, he encourages him to read, and he enrols him at school, all of which allows Ugwu to do something extremely important towards the end of the novel.

As you can probably tell by now, Half of a Yellow Sun is, among other things, a perfect illustration of the saying “the personal is political”. As subjective as the story is, this is still a good book to book to hit people who say that political strife in Africa is not the legacy of colonialism over the head with. And if you’re wondering “Does anyone actually say that?”, I’ve had someone tell me in a conversation that “It’s been decades now, so they’ve had more than enough time to get their act together”. Sadly, I kid you not.

Also, the fact that this novel doesn’t try to be the story of the Nigerian-Biafran War doesn’t mean that it doesn’t say universal things about war and its consequences. War truly does make monsters of people. There’s a devastating scene in which a character I loved and respected does something unspeakable. It put me in mind of the Milgram experiment, and of the fact that we shouldn’t underestimate what even the kindest people might do under certain circumstances.

Finally, what made Half of a Yellow Sun a shattering read was the fact that Adichie brilliantly evokes the uncertainty and fear that people who live through wars have to deal with on a daily basis. I can’t speak of this concretely without spoilers, but the ending absolutely killed me. And yet of course it had to end like it did, because so many real human beings have to live with that kind of doubt. The sorrow and frustration we experience as readers does not of course even begin to compare with the uncertainty that so many real people have to live with; with the horror of never knowing things that matter desperately; with having every last bit of fierce hope pour out of you as time passes and no answers come. But still, it’s a glimpse, and a glimpse of unimaginable horrors is the greatest weapon against indifference.

(Spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph: In regards to making readers experience some of what the people who lived through the Nigerian-Biafran War experienced, I watched an interview with Adichie in which she said that this was the reason why she wrote Ugwu’s supposed death. It wasn’t really a plot device or an attempt to manipulate her reader’s emotions; it’s just that this really happened – people were presumed dead and their loved ones mourned them, only to have them walk into the living room one day after weeks or months of grief. She said she wanted to evoke those experiences in readers, and I think she succeeded brilliantly.)

Half of a Yellow Sun is a devastating but absolutely brilliant novel. I’ll admit that the violence gave me nightmares (something that doesn’t happen very often at all), but I can’t remember the last time I was this immersed in a book, or this strongly reminded that all those news stories we hear about vaguely are things that actually happen to real human beings. I think I loved this book even more than Purple Hibiscus, and some of you might remember just how much I enjoyed that. I need to get my hands on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection as soon as possible, and I hope she publishes another novel before too long.

Favourite passages:
He pulled her to him, and for a while Olanna did nothing, her body limp against his. She was used to this, being grabbed by men who walked around in a cloud of cologne-drenched entitlement, with the presumption that, because they were powerful and found her beautiful, they belonged together.

Ugwu moved closer to the door to listen; he was fascinated by Rhodesia, by what was happening in the south of Africa. He could not comprehend people that looked like Mr Richard taking away the things that belonged to people that looked like him, Ugwu, for no reason at all.

Edna came in crying, her eyes swollen red, to tell her that white people had bombed the black Baptist church in her hometown. Four little girls had died. One of them was her niece’s schoolmate. ‘I saw her when I went home six months ago, ‘Just six months ago I saw her.’
(…)
‘Oh, my God,’ she said, between sobs. ‘Oh, my God.’
Olanna reached out often to squeeze her arm. The rawness of Edna’s grief made her helpless, brought the urge to stretch her hand into the past and reverse history. Finally, Edna fell asleep. Olanna gently placed a pillow beneath her head and sat thinking about how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off. She thought about how ephemeral life was, about not choosing misery. She would move back to Odenigbo’s house.

If she had died, if Odenigbo and Baby and Ugwu had died, the bunker would still smell like a freshly tilled farm and the sun would still rise and the crickets would still hop around. The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life.
They read it too:
Ready When You Are, C.B, Maw Books, Farm Lane Books, Kiss a Cloud, Trish’s Reading Nook, Page 247, Another Cookie Crumbles, Giraffe Days, Fizzy Thoughts, Peeking Between the Pages, Violet Crush, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, Reading Adventures

(Have I missed yours?)

38 comments:

  1. I tried to read this a couple of years ago and just couldn't get into it. I wonder if it is because I was teaching then and needed lighter reading to cope with my busy work schedule. I actually got about half way through and gave up. I wonder whether now I need to go back and take another look at it.

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  2. This book is one of my all time favourites, I was shocked and tunned by it and thought it was oneof the most powerful and gripping books that I had read in ages and ages. I read it for an old book group and the discussion was fantastic. It's also one of those books I have bought for several other people and every single one has thought it brilliant.

    I must read Purple Hibiscus and her short story collection you mention yet I am savouring them as there is no sign of a new book in the wings quite yet.

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  3. Wonderful review. I haven't read this yet. But I'm a fan of her work due to Purple Hibiscus and her short story collection. As an African, I'm heartened by books that depict our new post-colonial realities. But some are, as you put it, "devastating", as they reflect the horrors we continue to unleash on one another. Adichie is really talented.

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  4. I remember hearing movie adaptation rumors a few years ago for this but never anything else about it.

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  5. An absolutely brilliant review!! I know I must read Adichie. Do you think I should start with this or Purple Hibiscus? At least some of the stories from her collection are available on line (it might be at the The New Yorker website).

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  6. This has been on my wish list for a long time, but you've just made me realize how very much I *need* to get my hands on this. Your review has put my expectations so high for this book--I'm convinced it will end up among my favorite books of all time. That seems a scary thought, to have expectations that high, but somehow I'm not scared at all.
    And thank you so much for the link to her talk about the dangers of a single story. When I popped over there and saw that the video was 20 minutes long, I almost didn't watch it. But I'm so glad I did--I can think of no better way to have spent those 20 minutes.

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  7. I'll have to track this book down. No idea if it has been translated into Italian yet.

    I knew you'd like it :)

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  8. I have heard so much about this novel and your review has made me realise that I think I will love it. Thank you it may have gone unread otherwise.

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  9. I think I need to read this one! An the different perspectives sound very intriguing :)

    I loved Purple Hibiscus!

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  10. I want to read this so badly!

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  11. I really feel like my familiarity with African literature is poor at best, so I'm trying to create a list of titles I really need to read from that country. Clearly this is one of them! I didn't realize it was told through multiple viewpoints, a technique I find is quite difficult for authors to successfully pull-off... I'm glad it worked so well here!

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  12. This one has been on my must read pile for quite some time. I look forward to actually reading it soon and it's nice to know that the author helps us with the background information!

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  13. It sounds like this book really affected you! It must be fantastic, then. It's good to hear that you don't need much background knowledge about the politics involved. That's something that I never enjoy in books - when you need to have certain understandings before attempting to read it. I'll have to get my hands on this one soon!

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  14. This is exactly the kind of book I love! I drive everyone around my crazy talking about them when I read them, though. Fantastic review!

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  15. I have heard a lot about this book, but haven't ever read a really good and in-depth review like the one you provided. It sounds like it was really very affecting for a lot of reasons, and as someone who doesn't know a lot about Biafra and the war, it sounds doubly compelling to me. I have not yet read a book by this author yet either, and think that this will probably be the one I try first. Thanks for the incredibly astute review, Nymeth. It sounds like a very compelling and unforgettable read.

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  16. Man, everyone raves about this book but the violence seems so intense...I've been putting it off for a time when I feel particularly emotionally robust. Sounds like it tackles lots of issues in an empathic & intelligent way, though!

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  17. I read this one around 2 years ago or so, and it really is all about people just being people. In the midst of terrible things, they are, quite simply, people.

    Wonderful read.

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  18. I've got this book sitting on the TBR stack but haven't yet made time for it. Glad to hear I'll be able to learn something about Biafra and the war. I don't know whether this is a sad thing to say or not, but much of my initial learning about what goes on/has gone on in African nations is a result of reading fiction. Usually, I do go on to read non-fiction after being exposed but I think that is an interesting commentary on how much attention we and our media pay (referring to U.S.) to what goes on there.

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  19. I am adding this book to my list as we speak! :-)

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  20. I skimmed this post because I have both Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun on my TBR pile and I hope to read at least one in August. I am very happy to hear you loved them both so much though!

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  21. I liked this book, but you are right, it is a heartbreaker. I hadn't known anything about the Biafrian-Nigerian war prior to reading this book, and I thought it did an excellent job of relating the history in a compelling manner. I can understand Vivienne's comment about not being able to get into the book though because it did take me a while to be sucked into the story.

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  22. I really need to pick this up and finish it already! What a wonderful review, I only read about half of it but didn't want to learn too much about the book so stopped, but what I did read has me knowing I need to get back to the book sooner rather than later.

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  23. I am dumb. I read this review, thought the book sounded amazing and remembered liking Purple Hibiscus, and decided to read it at the start of fall, as part of my not-reading-the-end-out-of-order project. Then I carried on and read the spoiler paragraph because I like spoilers. I...am not confident about the future of this project.

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  24. I read this a couple of years ago and found it tremendously moving, challenging, shocking, and so many other descriptive words!


    My review is here

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  25. I bought this for my father (who worked in and travelled around Africa for many years) after watching a documentary about Adichie last year but haven't read this myself. Nigerian history and literature and that of most of Africa is something I don't know much about, but I went to a talk by the novelist Moses Isekawa who spoke of Adichie and Chinue Achebe a few years back which stirred my interest. You've written a wonderful review and it's a timely reminder for me to pick up this book soon.

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  26. I thought this was brilliant, too! I want to read Purple Hibiscus and The Thing Around Her Neck as well..

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  27. Wonderful review, Ana. I still want to read Purple Hibiscus and The Thing Around Your Neck.

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  28. Vivienne: Sorry to hear you couldn't get into it! But do give it another try sometime, because it's absolutely worth it.

    Simon: It's definitely an incredibly powerful book. I kept thinking about that thing we never get to find out (avoid spoilers in case anyone reads this) for days. That's too bad that there are no news of a new novel yet, but at least there are the short stories. I can't imagine them not being great.

    Kinna: She absolutely is. She makes the fact that these things happen to real people impossible to ignore.

    Jen: I wonder how this would work as a movie - I'm saying this mostly because of the multiple points of view, which might not be easy to pull off.

    JoAnn: Thank you! Both are excellent, so I think you could start with either, really. And I need to look for those stories online, so I can get my Adichie fix until I finally get the full collection.

    Debi: I can definitely see it becoming a favourite of yours too, no doubt about it.

    Alessandra: I want to give everyone who told me to read it in the comments to my SS post a few weeks ago a hug :P

    Joan Hunter Dunn: You're most welcome, and I hope you do love it!

    Bina: As did I, and I thought this was even better. Which is saying a lot!

    Amanda: Do! As I was saying it really is quite violent, but so worth it.

    Steph: Same here, unfortunately. After this I really want to read Things Fall Apart, as it deals with some of the same themes and is a favourite of Adichie's.

    Staci: Yes, she makes it all completely understandable, but not in a way that oversimplifies the political complexities, if that makes sense. Not an easy thing to pull off!

    Emidy: Yeah, good fiction has to be universal no matter how specific the setting. Adichie manages perfectly, though!

    Kathy: Thank you! I think you'd like this a lot.

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  29. Zibilee: Thank you! It is absolutely unforgettable, and like you said I appreciated that it taught me so much about what happened in Biafra.

    Emily: Yes, best to make sure you pick a good moment, as it really is devastating. The violence isn't even all that graphic, but it doesn't need to be.

    Fence: Yes, exactly!

    Terri B: That's such an excellent point - I've noticed the exact same. I think it might be because a lot of the time news stories have a cold, detached, "here we go again" tone to them. Whereas novels make the reality of it all inescapable. Funny how it's fiction that achieves that.

    Stephanie: I'm glad to hear it!

    Iris: I can't wait to hear what you think of whichever one you pick. They're both absolutely excellent.

    Emily Jane: Yes you do!

    Alyce: It did, didn't it? And providing the historical/political context for everything that was happening so seamlessly can't have been easy.

    Amy: Yes you do! Looking forward to your final thoughts.

    Jenny: lol - old habits die hard? :P

    Marg: Added your link - sorry I missed it before! I completely agree with all those adjectives, and we could sit here all day coming up with more!

    Sakura: I really need to read Achebe before too long, especially after this. Thank you for the kind words, and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    Claire and Gavin, I really think you'll both love Purple Hibiscus. And hopefully we'll all love The Thing Around Your Neck.

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  30. Great review Nymeth. I remember reading this book a few years back and I found it so moving. I was angry, shocked, just a whole range of emotions. I'm so curious if she's working on a new novel. I need to investigate!

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  31. What an awesomely extensive review, Ana! This is one of those books I've heard so much about but have never read. I clearly am missing out on a whole lot.

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  32. I. Need. To. Read. This. Book.

    Unlike most of the other commenters, I hadn't heard of Half Of a Yellow Sun until I read your review, and I am so happy I did! I just put it on hold at the library. Thank you, thank you.

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  33. This book has been on my list for a year, ever since you & Eva convinced me to read Purple Hibiscus, which I loved. Brilliant review, but I did skip the spoiler! Thank you!

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  34. Your review brought back my intense enjoyment of this novel; I was truly overwhelmed by it. I did enjoy Purple Hibiscus a great deal, too, but I think the multiple viewpoints in this novel brought a complexity to it that can't help but involve the reader deeply once you've made their acquaintances. I did begin her collection, but then decided to let it be; I want to know there is another books of hers yet to be read.

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  35. Is it sad that I had to go back and read my review to remember how I felt about this book? Reading your review has me wanting to read the book again and I felt myself agreeing with you on so many levels, but it appears I had a problem with the ending (which I can't remember!!). What I loved most about this book was the complexity of the characters and the richness of the layering. I haven't read Purple Hibiscus and don't remember if I own it, but this makes me want to read it soon.

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  36. Iliana: I completely share those emotions. An amazing book.

    Aarti: You are! I'd SO so love an Aarti review of this. Is that reason enough to convince you to read it soon? ;)

    Cass: You're most welcome! I hope you find it as rewarding as I did.

    ds: I can't wait to hear what you think of this one!

    Buried in Print: I do that too - save books by authors I love for later, I mean. And I think I actually love Adichie enough for that.

    Trish: What a pity you can't remember what the problem you had with the ending was! I'd love to discuss it with you. And yes, do read Purple Hibiscus! It's a more straightforward kind of story, but also amazing.

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  37. I really want to read this one and discuss with my work colleague who is from Biafra. He's been in the U.S since the 1960's but has great insight into Nigeria today and lots to say on the whole subject of Africa in general and the situation in some of the countries there. I look forward to reading this one.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.