Week 21 (Blaga): Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 


Reader: Blaga

Task #14: Read a book about war

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Publisher: Anchor (2007) (First edition by Knopf, September 2006)

CW: war, war atrocities, rape.

“Odenigbo climbed up to the podium waving his Biafra flag: swaths of red, black, and green and, at the center, a luminous half of a yellow sun.”

For all the millennia that there have been wars, those wars have been recorded in art, commemorating great victories and feats of heroism on the field to inspire hope and patriotic pride. Yet, much attention has also been devoted to showing the other side of conflict, revealing the horror, suffering and sacrifice that war both causes and requires. Nearly 3000 years ago, Homer achieved a balance between the two approaches, humanizing war while telling a story featuring heroic figures such as Achilles. In contrast, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun takes a brutally earnest look into the realities of the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, during which the Igbo people of Nigeria unsuccessfully fought to secede and form their own independent state of Biafra. 

The book is divided into four parts, two taking place in the early 1960s, prior to the civil war, and two taking place during it (1967-1970). Adichie tells the story from the perspective of three characters: Ugwu, the houseboy to Odenigbo, who begins as a math professor at Nsukka University; Olanna, Odenigbo’s wealthy, western-educated partner and a professor of sociology; and Richard, an English writer who is in a loving relationship with Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister. The novel is written in close third person, alternating between the three characters, something Adichie shows an immediate knack for despite it being a departure from the first person perspective of her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003).

Adichie confronts difficult topics with unusual candor so that the reader might grasp a fraction of their full weight and complexity. The atrocities that take place during armed conflict are so numerous that they very often become just a statistic or historical fact to be learned, stripped of their emotional power. I knew nothing about the Nigerian civil war when I started Half of a Yellow Sun, but with a bit of research, it was not difficult to learn the facts: purposeful starvation, ethnically-oriented killings, rapes and sickness brought on by the awful conditions, all of them on a massive scale. The slaughter and suffering demands to be brought to life in a compelling way, and I was pleased to discover that Adichie has succeeded in doing this, although some parts of the novel are difficult to read as a result. During these awful parts, including a particularly horrifying gang rape, Adichie’s straightforward, matter-of-fact prose was helpful; she gives the facts simply and quickly, so as to not make it more difficult than it has to be without underplaying the horror of the moment either.

Not all the miseries of war are traumatic and violent; sometimes, the reality of war brings on bitterness and disappointment in a much more mundane way. Before the war starts, and even into the first months of the war, Odenigbo, Olanna and even Richard are full of patriotic zeal. They dream of a society in which the racial and social inequality inherited from colonialism can be cleared away, and Biafra’s secession from Nigeria seems to represent a glamorous fulfillment of this dream. Yet nothing is simple when economic interests, especially those of larger world powers, are at stake. As starvation sets in, so does desperation; the naive idealism that the cast starts with is slowly and painfully stripped away.

I could spend any amount of time praising Adichie’s ability to create complex characters or to pull the reader into the culture of 1960s Nigeria so effortlessly, but instead, I will leave it for readers to discover themselves. Despite being emotionally difficult, the story was engaging and effective throughout. Adichie makes only one crucial mistake in Half of a Yellow Sun, a stylistic misstep involving excerpts of a separate work that discusses the war in the first person. It does not become clear until the very end how these passages relate to the rest of the book, and even then, it seems out of place.

I was painfully moved by Half of a Yellow Sun. It is a profound novel, but not always easy to read, so it may not be for everyone. Still, I commend Adichie on yet again addressing a difficult subject with the elegance and emotion it demands. 

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