Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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This is my second book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. Last year I read and loved ‘Americanah’ and when I saw ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ while browsing in the library I knew it will come home with me.

I knew more or less what to expect. Adichie knows how to write, her characters are so well fleshed out that the book hooks you from the very first pages. She writes about her homeland Nigeria, its people, and culture.

Up until 2017, I have not read a lot of books related to the African continent, so after reading a few last year (like Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi) I realized how much I missed out on. These books are so rich, colorful and well written, giving us valuable insight into African culture, its history, and people.

In this book, Adiche explores a part of Nigerian history we don’t know what much of, the secession of Biafra from Nigeria between 1967 and 1970. This attempt at leaving Nigeria and forming an independent state resulted in war during which approximately two million Biafran citizens died of starvation.

The book is kind of divided into two parts, the first part relates the events leading up to the secession and the second part is the unfolding of the war between Biafra and Nigeria.

I love history so in a way this would have been a perfect book for me if it had been pitched to me as a historical novel. But, this book is very much character driven. The story is told from three perspectives.

  1. Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy employed by a university professor full of revolutionary ideas.
  2. Olanna, the professor’s beautiful mistress born into a privilege which she then abandons to live with her lover.
  3. Richard, a shy and good-looking Englishmen who falls in love with Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister Kainene.

So, this dual focus on these characters and Biafra’s history didn’t really work for me for some reason. I loved the first part where we get to know the characters and how their lives unfold. We still get a pretty good feeling of what’s happening in the political scene but it’s not dominating the narrative. Whereas in the second part the war pretty much takes over.

I understand Adiche’s need to tell Biafra’s story but I feel that this could have been achieved also with a little less emphasis on politics. In order to pull this off a lot of side characters were introduced which made sense in this political context, whom for me, invested in our main characters, was completely irrelevant. This split focus took away some of the enjoyment I felt while reading the first part, making the last half drag by a little.

Going back to the characters, I really enjoyed Ugwu’s perspective and fell in love with his character. I stepped into the world of a child who while growing up in a remote village knew almost nothing about the modern world, about mundane things like fridges and tap water.

‘Ugwu entered the kitchen cautiously, placing one foot slowly after the other. When he saw the white thing, almost as tall as he was, he knew it was the fridge. His aunty had told him about it. A cold barn, she had said, that kept food from going bad. He opened it and gasped as the cold air rushed into his face.’

‘Ugwu turned off the tap, turned it on again, then off. On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy in his stomach.’

Olanna Ozobia grew up as a Chief’s daughter, she knows that her family name gives her power and privilege. It is a world she abandons for the professor and a more meaningful life. I love the Ozoba family dynamics and the difference between the generations.

‘”Ozobia”? The ticket seller’s pockmarked face brightened in a wide smile. “Chief Ozobia’s daughter?”

“Yes”

“Oh! Well done, madam. I will ask the porter to take you to the VIP lounge.” The ticket seller turned around. “Ikenna! Where is that foolish boy? Ikenna!”

Olanna shook her head and smiled. “No, no need for that.” She smiled again, reassuringly, to make it clear it was not his fault that she did not want to be in the VIP lounge.’

Richard’s perspective felt the least fleshed out, at certain points, it even seemed unnecessary. Was he included to represent the outsider perspective? The white expatriate? The typical expat life doesn’t suit him so he finds refuge in the mysterious and bold Kainene.

‘Richard didn’t mind standing by and waiting until she was ready to leave, didn’t mind that none of her friends made an effort to draw him in, didn’t even mind when a pasty-faced drunk woman referred to him as Susan’s pretty boy. But he minded the all-expatriate parties where Susan would nudge him to “join the men” while she went over to the circle of women to compare notes on living in Nigeria. He felt awkward with the men. […] When Richard mentioned his interest in Igbo-Ukwu art, they said it didn’t have much of a market yet, so he didn’t bother to explain that he wasn’t at all interested in the money, it was the aesthetics that drew him.’

Through these characters, Adichie introduces subjects like colonialism, ethnicity, race, and class. Some parts of describing the war were hard to read. The barbaric acts of war vividly pictured can be hard to swallow. The children suffering from malnutrition with their swollen bellies are still a reality in Africa today. Rape, famine, the massacre of innocent civilians, the destruction and looting by the army happen during wartime and war is, unfortunately, a reality for many in 2018.

Overall, a wonderful read, and I recommend it to all who love history and character-driven books.

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