Half of a Yellow Sun
By Chimananda Ngozi Adichie
Read: sometime in 2016; reread Sept 2017
This is a truly remarkable book.
First let me share that when I started reading (actually listening to) this book, I did not know its subject. I only knew that I appreciated Adichie’s more recent book Americanah , was interested in more by this author, and a friend recommended this one. I purchased the audiobook, but did not read it for several months. By the time I began to read it, I only knew it was set in Nigeria, the birth country of the author. What a powerful and wonderful surprise to be treated to a deep story of three characters through which I learned much about Nigeria—its history and impact of that history on the relationships between various regions, ethnic groups, and classes–and the brief history of Biafra as it sought to split from Nigeria and form a separate independent republic.
Adichie tells this complex story in 4 Parts and 37 chapters from the perspective of three characters. In addition, eight extracts from “The Book: The World Was Silent When We Died” are dispersed through the book. The reader eventually understands this book is being written by one of the characters and the book is about the history of Biafra.
In Part One: The Early Sixties we meet the three characters whose perspectives we will view the overall story.
Ugwu is a 13 year boy from a poor village who gets a job as a house boy for a math professor at Nssuka University. His aunty learned about the position through her job as a cleaner in the university building housing the math department. The aunty assures Master that Ugwu will learn quickly. Odenigbo (Master) fails at getting Ugwu to call him by his name vs “Master” or “Sah” but does get Ugwu into school so that he can substantially extend his education beyond his very few years of elementary school. Through Ugwu’s perspective we learn, in Part One, about the his awe of modern plumbing and appliances, his role in the house, the arrival of Odenigbo’s lover Olanna and the impact she has on Ugwu’s cooking and personal hygiene, and Master’s friends who argue about politics of Nigeria . Thus the story through his perspective starts teaching us about the various socio-economic classes and gives us a picture of the political problems in Nigeria in the early 1960s.
Olanna is a London educated daughter of an Igbo Chief who resides in Lagos and whose business interests and personal finances benefit from this political position. She does not “support” her father’s business interests by having a relationship with another Chief nor does she take a job in Lagos as her parents would prefer, but rather accepts a job as an instructor at Nssuka University so she can cohabitate with her “revolutionary lover”, as her twin sister, Kaninene calls Odenigbo. We learn through Olana’s perspective, in Part One, about her mother’s sister and family who live in Kano (in the north) in a 2-room apartment in a compound and make their living selling goods in a market, about her former rich Muslim boyfriend (also lives in Kano), and about the stresses of establishing herself in life post-grad school as Odengibo’s lover, with his group of friends, and her new relationships with her family. Thus we gain insight about more socio-economic classes, religious conflicts, and politics in Nigeria.
Richard is a young British expatriate who has come to Nigeria with an interest in Igbo-Ukwu art and a desire to become a writer, or at least a journalist of more substance than he’d accomplished so far with a tiny column for a paper in London. His Aunt Elizabeth (who raised him after he was orphaned) connected him with Susan, another expatriate who is a little older than Richard and who had been in Nigeria for some time. She helps him get established with living essentials, introduces him to her (exclusively) ex-pat friends, encourages his writing by setting up an office for him in her home, and makes him her boyfriend. He meets Kainene, Olanna’s twin, and leaves Susan. He takes a position at Nssuka University and moves to Nssuka. Kainene has Olanna get him a houseboy and introduce Richard to Odenigbo’s friends, fully linking these major characters. Through his perspective we learn about the British attitudes regarding Nigerian people and Nigeria’s recent independence from Britain, get an impression about Kaninene’s business life, and meet Major Madu, a friend of Kaninene’s since childhood and a member of Nigeria’s army. Thus we gain more understanding about additional aspects of the Nigeria political and business scene at the time.
In Part Two: The Late Sixties Adichie uses her characters to tells us of the political coups, massive violence against the Igbo people following the second coup, secession of the Igbo region from Nigeria as Biafra , and the beginning of the military action Nigeria begins to force reunification. Her characters, which she has by now richly drawn for us, can now provide us a human view of these events—the devastation of losing family members to the massacre in the north, the excitement of Biafra’s declaration of independence, and the confusion and disorientation of becoming an in-country refugee while fleeing “the vandals” (the Nigerian army).
Part Three: The Early Sixties takes us back before the coup. In this short part we learn about personal wars and betrayals that nearly break Olanna’s relationship with Odinigbo and Richard’s relationship with Kaninene . Through these issues the story shows us the expectations of a village mother (Odinigbo’s) and the role of magic and spells in villagers’ lives again informing us of Nigerian parallel cultures—village and intellectuals.
Part Four: The Late Sixties is the longest section. Adichie’s characters lead us through the war. Initially, life is difficult but still bearable as Biafra continues to establish a government (and army!) and teach the residents about the expected joy of independence. However, as Nigeria gains Britain’s support to reunify and other countries fail to recognize Biafra, life becomes increasingly difficult as the number of in-country refugees increases and aid to them severely declines. Her characters Olanna and Ugwu allow us a very human view of the impact of Nigeria’s use of starvation as a major weapon in their war against Biafra, the toll of losing loved ones, the inequities still present between the government employees and the masses, and the horrors of war fought by conscripted young people directed militarily by hired mercenaries. Richard’s character helps us understand aspects of the role of journalism in the war. He is asked to write articles to send to the foreign press to gain recognition of Biafra or at least of its dire need for help for its people’s survival. He serves as guide to some foreign correspondents who seek to “get the story” which isn’t the same as getting a real understanding of the actual situation. We feel the relentless pressure of the war on every aspect of the characters’ lives and struggle with them as they are stripped of so much but try to retain some threads of themselves. During my second read, I knew how the story would end, but I still cheered for the characters and hoped things would turn out better than I knew they would.
I listened to an unabridged edition, narrated by Robin Miles and published by Recorded Books in 2011. . The voice she provided for each character reflected their socio-economic class, education, and country of origin. Unfortunately I do not find this edition through on-line searches for it. A new edition published by Books on Tape was apparently released Sept 19, 2017 and now shows on the Recorded Books website. I hope it provides a similar experience for the listener as it certainly added to my understanding of the characters.
This is “historical fiction” at its best: multiple superbly and fully developed major characters, a carefully constructed cast of essential supporting characters, engaging personal stories that provide much information about the culture, the socio-economic climate, and the drivers of the historical events–without ever feeling like you’ve been lectured to. Adichie is an excellent story teller but even more importantly she provides us an exceptionally human look at a piece of history which is likely familiar to few readers in the west.