Review: Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I came to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing through her voice, through the sample of her “We Should All Be Feminists” TED talk in Beyoncé’s song Flawless, and her other talk on the dangers of the “single story“. Both turn out to be very relevant to Half Of A Yellow Sun, which depicts the lives of women and complicates the typical Western narrative of Africa the dark continent of war and famine, even though it is about war and famine.

Half Of A Yellow Sun is a story of love and war in the 1960s, told through the eyes of three people. There is Ugwu, a young boy who leaves his village in south east Nigeria to serve Odenigbo, a professor in the university town of Nsukka. There is Olanna, the woman Odenigbo falls in love with. And there is Richard, a British man pursuing his passion for Nigerian art, who falls in love with Olanna’s twin sister Kainene.

All of these characters play to archetypes, but complicate things. Ugwu is the naive village boy, but there is also something hungry and intellectual about him. Olanna seems a strong and independent woman, but is fragile and insecure beneath her radiant exterior. Kainene is ruthlessly pragmatic and sarcastic in all her dealings, whether business, politics or family, but has perhaps the strongest moral foundations of anyone in the story. Richard is clearly the bumbling white fool. At every opportunity he mentions his fascination with an Igbo-Ukwu roped iron pot discovered in 1959; it is clear he sees Africans and Africa almost as collectible objects. But there is also something moving about his desire to find belonging in a culture that isn’t his.

The novel begins in the intellectual circles of Nsukka in the early 1960s, in the heady optimism following Nigeria’s independence. Odenigbo and his colleagues drink and dine and discus the merits of pan-Africanism versus tribalism, and the trials of Black people around the world, from the US to Australia. But then, in Richard’s chapter in the first part of the novel, there is a disturbing apparition. The book cuts away to what seems to be plans for another book, The World Was Silent When We Died. A woman sits on a crowded train, a child’s head held in a gourd. It is not until well into the next part of the novel, set in the late 1960s, that we find out why.

In hindsight, the signs were there all along. The half of the yellow sun of the title refers to the flag of Biafra, the nation that briefly came into being in south east Nigeria in the late 1960s. Its secession sparked the Nigerian Civil War, during which up to 3 million Biafrans died, mostly from starvation. The violence, when it comes, comes with little fanfare. Biafra’s secession follows two military coups and an extraordinary paroxysm of violence against the Igbo people, during which up to 100,000 people were massacred in northern Nigeria. Here’s Olanna in the north at the beginning of the purge, a friend helping her escape in his car, thinking she has seen someone she knows earlier:

He narrowly missed a kuka tree; one of the large pods had fallen down and Olanna heard a crunching squash as the car ran over it. It was Abdulmalik. He had nudged another body, a woman’s headless body.

This is typical of Adichie’s writing, painting evocative and detailed pictures that get their power from what they suggest. The violence seems inexplicable, but then it is not. The Igbo people are said to be responsible for one of the coups. Several times the treatment of the Igbo people is linked to that of Jewish people. The author of the novel’s book-within-a-book is reminded of Jewish women fleeing Hamburg with the charred remains of her children in a suitcase. An expat describes the Igbo people as “clannish and uppity and controlling the markets. Very Jewish really”. Odenigbo locates the origins of the Holocaust in the Herero genocide of 1904 in Namibia. “Of course there’s a link,” he says, and the link is European colonisation and race theory.

It’s here that I was thinking of Adichie’s “single story” talk. The white people in the novel are peripheral but have many things to say about what is happening in Nigeria, and it’s clear that those things will dominate how the world sees the civil war. Half Of A Yellow Sun is an effective rebuttal to the narrative dominance of colonists in Africa.

In any event the novel soon cuts back to the early 1960s, to uncover the source of a rift between the two sisters and their lovers. It seems an unusual passage of melodrama following the horrors of the Igbo pogroms. But Adichie has foregrounded these abrupt shifts between personal, social and historical life.

Adichie is an unusual writer in that she takes sex seriously, not just for titillation. She grants her characters’ sex lives equal footing with the other parts of their lives. As well as love and pleasure, characters face reproductive difficulties: Richard has erectile disfunction; Olanna seems to have fertility problems.

It would be easy to put these down as trifling concerns of Nigeria’s middle class, and there are certainly elements of biting satire here, as Adichie depicts her characters worrying about things when children are dying of kwashiorkor next door. In her cool, nonjudgmental prose there is something seething.

But I think Adichie is drawing a line here between the forces of creation and life, and destruction and death. Even in war, her characters have time for love, representing not so much hope, as an unstoppable life force. It is oldest story in the world, that of war and peace, and I was reminded of all sorts of classic stories from The Iliad onwards. But perhaps the book it most reminded me of is The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee, which deals with a similar period of optimism and crushing defeat in 1960s India. I also thought a lot of Adichie’s compatriot Chinua Achebe and his novel Things Fall Apart, who also wrote on the Biafran war, and whose epigraph begins the novel. If Things Fall Apart showed the impact of the first decades of British colonisation in Nigeria through a fairly masculine lens, Adichie’s novel could be said to provide a feminine counterpoint. Things do fall apart, but life always finds a way.

Gay rating: not gay

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