Rating : 5/5
Year of Publishing : 2006
Publisher : Alfred. A. Knopf / Anchor Books
Winner of 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction
It was a sheer stroke of luck that led me to purchase a copy of the “Half Of A Yellow Sun” from my regular book haunt. While glancing through my shopping list and asking the shop assistant to hand over to me the works of Atwood, du Maurier and Murakami; this book was nowhere in my mind and I had not even heard of Adichie. Kudos to the shop assistant for it was he who suggested that I purchase Half Of A Yellow Sun. Seeing the skepticism clouding my face following his suggestion, he insisted on me purchasing the book telling “You will love it, madam” and I agreed to purchase it as a thank you for his service. Due to my lack of interest, the book was sitting in my shelf for the past seven months till one day I had an impulse to read this particular book. The novel was so wonderful that I have made a mental note to accept all the suggestions of that shopping assistant.
Set in the 1960’s, Half Of A Yellow Sun narrates the effect of the Biafran War on the main characters of the novel. Olanna and Kainene are the twin daughters of an influential business man who has returned to Nigeria post their education from London. Completely different from each other in appearance and interests, both the sisters choose a varied future. Olanna moves to Nsukka to teach at the university and to stay with her “revolutionary” lover Odenigbo who is a professor of mathematics at the university. Kainene manages the business affairs of her father and enters into a relationship with Richard Churchill, an English writer fascinated by Igbo-Ukwu art. Ugwu, Odenigbo’s 13 year old house boy, becomes an indispensable part of Odenigbo’s and Olanna’s life. Their day to day life is interrupted as the political situation of Nigeria escalates with a coup and a counter-coup resulting in the massacre of Igbo people and ultimately leading to the Biafran War. Will the sisters and their loved ones come unscathed from a war that shook humanity with starvation and civilian causalities?
As I have tremendous interest in African countries, their landscapes and culture, I am fascinated by any literature originating from Africa. However, it is unfortunate that I have not read many books that describe the political conditions and way of life of the African countries. The few books that I have read are always from the European perspective. It was a breath of fresh air when I got to read “Half Of A Yellow Sun” as it was a story of Nigeria written by a Nigerian. It paints a clear picture of the Biafran War from a historical perspective without losing any of the human elements. This book was like a small lesson on Nigerian politics for me. Reading about the civil unrest and racial tensions that erupted in Nigeria following the British decolonization struck me closer to home as India too faced similar challenges on the domestic front after gaining independence from the British rule. India split into two countries following these events which did not happen in Nigeria owing to various political and economic factors. What stood out in the novel was not only the suffering of the people who became the innocent victims of war but also their faith in the success of Biafra. Despite being faced with multiple defeats, causalities and extreme starvation, the spirit of the masses and their beliefs in their cause could not be extinguished.
Recounting the horrors of the war, Adichie has also covered issues related to the representation of the Biafran War in the foreign media. The biased outlook of the journalists and their perfunctory coverage of the issue hampered the cause rather than presenting the real issues. She also stressed on the importance of an African telling the stories of Africa – a foreigner cannot understand the depths and undercurrents of the issues and will always look down on the natives while telling their tale. Visible in the novels were undercurrents of feminism and progressive thoughts in various subtle ways. What stood out for me was the boldness of the character Kainene, who has an independent life without the help of a man in a conservative country in the 60’s. A feat still hard for women in many countries even today! The character of Olanna also had a great personality and courage and slowly embraced the fact that it is she who controls her happiness and not any man.
Another stand out factor for me in the book was Adichie’s talent to transform this book to a tale of love and relationships without diluting her narration of the national and international politics in the war. The novel is narrated from the perspective of three diverse narrators – an educated Nigerian perspective provided by Olanna, the lower class perspective by Ugwu and the perspective of an outsider by Richard. Adichie has beautifully portrayed the character of Ugwu who at the beginning of the novel was a village boy eager to please and serve his master albeit with an outdated mindset. However, Odenigbo, Olanna and their friends transformed Ugwu’s world and soon he became a man of the world with a fine grasp over English and a refined taste in literature.
However, the war changed all the characters in the novel and this transition has been beautifully portrayed by Adichie. Odenigbo went from a staunch believer in the cause of Biafra to a man disillusioned with life and teetering on the verge of depression when faced with one difficulty after the other. Olanna and her sister for the first time understands and adjusts with a life that was completely outside of their privileged upbringing. Both of them try to contribute to Biafra in whichever way possible – Kainene runs a refugee camo and Olanna teaches students in her courtyard. The interesting part was that Adichie lets her characters grow and acclimatize with the events around them through the framework of her narrative. The novel is also structured in such a way that the events before the war are alternated with the events during the war. This retains the interest of the readers as the peace time narrative is a bohemian narrative with personal struggles and misunderstandings. However the war time is a stark contrast to it in all terms of the personalities of the characters and their surroundings.
Overall, a touching tale of love in a war torn country. This book is a must read for people who enjoy historical and literary fiction especially with an interest towards the African continent. Others should also read this book to enjoy the fine and erudite prose of Adichie that fills us with love, laughter and sorrow.
Listing out few remarkable TED talks by Adichie which I immensely enjoyed :