Janet TAY reviews ... Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
Compelling tale of war
Reproduced from a review in The Sunday Star, June 17, 2007
Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(Harper Perennial, 433pp)
“WE NEVER ACTIVELY remember death,’’ Odenigbo, one of the book’s main characters, says. “The reason we live as we do is because we do not remember that we will die. We will all die.’’
Starvation. Genocide. Pregnant women who have their bellies cut open and young Igbo men shot at point-blank range. A running headless body, unaware that its head has been blown off in an air raid.
This is a tale of a country torn in two by an attempted secession of the predominantly south-eastern Christian Igbo provinces of Nigeria as the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra (this conflict became known as the Biafran War or the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brings this piece of harrowing history to life and ensures that the memories of a war that most would rather forget are planted firmly in the minds of those who know about it, and more importantly, those who do not.
Before the horrifying images of war, there is another collage—an opulent household, love and lust between men and women, loneliness amidst material comforts, lost family ties, interracial relationships and expatriate condescension.
The banal and ordinary dwells like a weed amidst the calamity that can change a person, a family, a nation—a civil war that turned poets into soldiers, boys into rapists and friendship into religious hatred. A war where priests exchange food for sex with starving girls, where its survivors feel guilty for being alive when their families have been massacred.
When Nigeria obtained its independence from the British in 1960, it had a population of 60 million people of nearly 300 different ethnic and tribal groups, not to mention the invisible boundaries between the three main ethnic groups; the primarily Muslim Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the half-Christian, half-Muslim south-west and the Christian Igbo in the south-east. The well-educated Igbo people, in particular, were considered to have benefited most from the political situation in the 1960s, resulting in serious economic, ethnic and religious tensions between the various peoples in Nigeria which ultimately led to the Biafran War.
Adichie chronicles the events leading to the civil war in narratives by Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy, Olanna, an academic from a wealthy Igbo family and Richard, an English journalist writing a book about Africa who falls in love with Olanna’s twin, Kainene.
These three lives intertwine in consecutive chapters, starting off with Ugwu meeting his Master, the “revolutionary’’ Odenigbo. Olanna moves in with Odenigbo but refuses to marry him; Ugwu vacillates his affection between Olanna and Odegnibo; Odegnibo’s mother disapproves of Olanna, causing her to worry about the transience of happiness—a fear which is clearly not unfounded as the tolls of war unfold.
The novel is divided into four parts, but has two epochs—the early 1960s and the late 1960s. Adichie does an excellent job of interplaying the two periods of time with each other instead of the more conventional chronologically-placed events. The result is well-paced emotional disquiet and a heaviness of heart that never really leaves the reader even after the last page is thumbed.
The problems that come with war and violence sit side by side with problems that come with sex, relationships, family and friendship. Political betrayal runs parallel with betrayal in love. It is a time when trust is the next most important commodity to food, when everyone is a potential saboteur, and thunder becomes misunderstood as the sound of air raids.
Adichie paints a portrait of war that is real and touches home: Readers who have never experienced war may never be able to empathise with those who have, but her skilful depictions of food rationing, soap-making and running from air raids enables them to imagine the horrors of war and death much more succinctly than pictures on the news.
Adichie’s brilliant storytelling in Half of a Yellow Sun recently bagged her the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. However, the 29-year-old Nigerian has won several awards for this book prior to this, including the 2007 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the 2007 PEN “Beyond Margins’’ Award. She was also shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Africa).
During an interview in the Emerging Writers Forum in 2004, Adichie took issue with reviewers who reassured readers that a book about Africa (especially one written by a Black African about Black Africans) has universal appeal, whereas an American or British book needs no such reassurance.
There is no doubt that her tale of people who fight to survive will leave a lasting impression on anyone who picks up Half of a Yellow Sun, and Adichie could well answer those reviewers by borrowing a line from her book: “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things forgivable.’’