Reading Group No.2: ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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‘Some young men were carrying a coffin with NIGERIA written on it in white chalk; they raised it up, mock solemnity on their faces. Then they placed it down and pulled their shirts off and started to dig a shallow hole in the ground. When they lowered the coffin into the hole, a cheer rose in the crowd and spread, ripplelike, until it was one cheer, until Olanna felt that everybody there had become one. Somebody shouted, ‘Odenigbo!’ And it spread among the students. ‘Odenigbo! Address us!’

     Odenigbo climbed up to the podium waving his Biafran flag: swaths of red, black, and green and at the centre, a luminous half of a yellow sun’.

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, pg. 163

I was glad to hear that we would be reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, for the reading group I attend. I had started reading it a couple of years ago in my summer break but didn’t have time to finish it before term started and, after finally finishing the novel, I can’t believe I didn’t pick this up again sooner. NOTE: there are a couple of spoilers in this review!

Spanning the decade of the 1960s – an extremely turbulent and controversial time in Nigerian history – Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of three very distinct but equally engrossing characters. Ugwu, the first character we are introduced to, is a young boy from a small village who has been given the chance to work as a houseboy for a lecturer and activist at Nsukka University. The second character, Olanna, is  from a priveleged and wealthy family in Lagos who has abandoned everything to move to Nsukka and live with her ‘revolutionary lover’ (as her twin, Kainene, calls him). Olanna’s partner, Odenigbo, happens to be Ugwu’s Master. The third and final character is Richard Churchill – a shy and awkward Englishman who is enthralled by Kainene’s mysteriousness and impenetrability; he has come to Nigeria to find inspiration for the novel he wants to write.

‘He ached to know what she was thinking. He felt a similar physical pain when he desired her, and he would dream about being inside her, thrusting as deep as he could, to try and discover something that he knew he never would’.

Richard on Kainene, Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, pg. 65

The lives of these three characters intricately link in and out of one another in a way that encapsulates the history of the civil wars, and creation of the Biafran state, in what I can only call a real and unflinching depiction. Adichie has stated that it is not the place of the author to write an unbiased account of history – that is for the journalists – and it is clear that her novel is a recognition of the suffering of the Igbo people in the civil wars. However, she doesn’t romanticise Biafra or the Biafran people. The characters we come across are flawed – none more so than the leaders of the Biafran state – but they are human and real, struggling with the effects of war-time.

Adichie also doesn’t shy away from the mistakes her main characters make, at the risk of tarnishing our opinion of them, as she covers a wide range of issues from forced conscription, rape, disillusionment, violence and starvation. I think she does this cleverly through the form of her novel. She doesn’t just cover the most turbulent years of war, from 1967-70, but she also covers the peace-time era that preceded it. Beginning in the early 60s we witness the joyful and secure era of a Nigeria that has just gained its independence. Fast-forward a few years and the country is building up to an inevitable clash of tensions. Not only is there major political tensions, but there is also tensions that have arisen between Olanna and Kainene, Olanna and Odenigbo, and between Richard and Kainene. It is clear that an event has occurred in the years that Adichie has deliberately missed out, which has rocked the relationships between these characters. At first it seems as if we, the reader, have missed a pivotal moment in the plot. But, no, Adichie has cleverly chosen not to disclose everything at once. It is only in the third part of the novel, which rewinds back to the early 60s, that we find out the truth.

However, the fourth and final part of the novel, set towards the end of the Biafran-Nigerian conflict, truly depicts the harsh reality of war and overshadows the family dramas that have occurred. Olanna and Kainene’s relationship has become stronger, and the events that threatened to distance them appear petty in comparison to the struggles they face and witness. Characters, like Odenigbo, who once seemed so strong and revolutionary are now crumbling under the strain of defeat. Ugwu, who remains a constant throughout the novel, is eventually forced into the Biafran army and is not only forced to battle with the enemy, but forced to battle with the dehumanising effects of war. It is with a cruel sense of irony that he returns to his home village to find his sister psychologically ruined by the traumas she has faced from the Nigerian army – the same trauma he knowingly enforces on a Biafran woman.

After finishing the novel I decided to listen to an interview of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from the BBC World Book Club series – a radio broadcast that interviews global authors on their best-known works (and did I mention you can download the podcasts for free!). I was most disturbed and conflicted by Ugwu’s actions in the final section of the novel and was hoping that Adichie would, if not clear up my thoughts on the matter, at least describe her own personal opinions on it. If it isn’t already clear, Ugwu takes part in the gang-rape of a Biafran barmaid when he is a soldier and it is this event that most shocked and appalled me. In the interview Adichie is asked by an audience member why she doesn’t talk more about the rape of Ugwu’s sister by Nigerian soldiers. Adichie explains that in her research of the Biafran-Nigerian war she wasn’t surprised by the numerous accounts of Biafran women raped by Nigerian soldiers. Rape has, and probably always will be, a weapon of war. The fact that she doesn’t go into anymore detail of Ugwu’s sisters trauma is because she felt she didn’t need too – and in a way this proved more haunting, the things Adichie left unsaid. However, she was shocked to come across stories of Biafran women who had been raped by Biafran soldiers. Surely believing in the same cause was enough to protect women from that awful fate. But, as Ugwu shows (and these are Adichie’s words), war dehumanises people and makes them do things they wouldn’t normally do. She hopes that we, as the readers, will forgive Ugwu who definitely recognises and repents his horrific actions. This is something I found, and still do find, difficult to do.

Regardless of this, Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautiful, yet heart-wrenching and unapologetic, account of the Nigerian-Biafran war. As a reader who was ignorant of this area of Nigerian history, Adichie’s novel brought to life these traumatic events in an accessible way, without being patronising. The wonderful novel-within-a-novel interjections throughout (whose authorship is another twist) serves to explain the wars without bogging the narrative down with historical facts. Adichie’s writing is flawless and I would recommend anyone to read her work. Also, as seems to be the case with many novels recently, Half of a Yellow Sun is coming out as a film this year – it will open up the Trinidad and Tobego Film Festival on September 17th. 

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