Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun" is based around the Nigerian-Biafran War 1967-70 and as such is a fascinating telling of the conflict from a Biafran/Igbo point of view. I found it very moving to be reminded so lucidly about these tragic events of such a short time ago. In a note about the book, the author tells of her father's stories about the war and the fact that he always ended his stories with the phrase "war is very ugly". This book re-inforces that truth very convincingly. So there is a lot about human suffering but it is told always with graceful prose and fine characterisation. What is more it is an exciting, pacy read - and even though told from the Biafran point of view it is certainly not simplistic and provides fascinating insights into recent history and this wealthy part of modern Africa - Nigeria. Also it is fair to say that the first approximately half of the events of the novel take place before the civil war starts and sets the scenery so well for us that when the conflict unfolds it is all that more sad because of what is cast aside with the conflict.

Having started off my comments about the conflict based part of the novel I would like to emphasise the fine style of the writing especially the liveliness of the personal stories throughout and the brilliance of the novels composition. This comes out particularly for me in the narrating style. It is not told in a first person style - the story is played out through the experiences of three main characters and several secondary and also important characters. You don't get the sense of one all-knowing-narrator telling you about whats going on either - the characters show it to you. The writer uses these three and other characters to carry the story along - in particular - Olanna , an female upper middle class Igbo academic , who marries a Igbo/Biafran academic and patriot; Ugwu - their houseboy who is undertaking self improvement and education as the action paced story goes along and Richard, an English journalist and lover of Olanna's twin sister, Kainene. Consequently it is a visually clear, easy flowing style of a novel - I think it is very well constructed. We as readers are watching and feeling the episodes unfolding as the characters experience and learn of them too. The fine personal stories and detail contribute greatly to the liveliness of the book.

There is such a lot to enjoy in this book - fast paced story-telling, humour, romance, sex , colourful background, and there is a lot to ponder. Along with this good read stuff there is the background of world politics as it affects the civilians sruggling to survive and protect each other from the ravages of a war fought all around them in villages and towns. I would recommend it from several points of view not the least of which is that the author is an exceptionally fine writer. She manages to deliver a complex story seemingly effortlessly.


John Kennedy said...

I read this in the course of my travels, Faye, and I did enjoy it. Like you I thought it was very well written, and it presented what seemed a very convincing picture of what life might have been like in Biafra as the war progressed and swung against the breakaway state. The way conditions deteriorate seems immensely convincing, and it is certainly very powerful. As you say, the novel is 'pro-Biafran', but its picture is balanced. Clearly not everyone is sharing the appalling suffering on the Biafran side, and the leaders are managing to look after themselves when their people are starving.

The fact that we see Biafra before the war adds solidity to the picture. If the novel has a flaw, I think for me it would be the characterisation. Neither of the twin sisters became a vivid presence for me, and I did not find Ugwu's development into a highly literate historian very convincing. His master, the idealist driven to alcoholism, seems more of a creative success. (I jettisoned my copy to save weight on my travels, and the new one I ordered has yet to arrive, so I cannot easily recall the names!)

I really do think it is a fine novel and I am glad I was encouraged to read it.

Faye said...

I am glad you enjoyed it John - and as usual your comments set me thinking about what you have said . You note some of the characters - such as Olanna and Ugwu - dont come across as convincing . I went back and had another look at the later chapters and i think I can see what you mean - but for me they are very important in the book because they do convey the story. They are almost narrators but they are not all-knowing. I am fascinated by the way the author tells the story via the individuals experience as the book enfolds. I think it is a very strong structural approach. I dont think the reader is aware of the author so much. So overall I think it is a character driven story.

lib_aus said...

Did you see the presentation Chimamanda Adichie gave at TED : The danger of a single story http://bit.ly/Cgmmd She tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice -- and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

Anonymous said...

An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

Karim - Positive thinking