In which Netty tells you why you should drop everything you are doing right now and read Half Of A Yellow Sun …September 2, 2015
Half Of A Yellow Sun is the best book I have read so far this year. Hell, come year’s end, it may end up being the best book I have read all year.
It is the second novel by Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2006, and set in the 1960s before, during and immediately after the Nigerian civil war. Until now, if you’d said to me, “Biafra”, I would have replied, “Jello” (turns out the lead singer of The Dead Kennedys did name himself after the fledgling country that formed out of the Nigerian civil war and existed for a brief but extremely tumultuous three years from 1967 to 1970).
I’m not sure if it’s a blight on my public school education, or on me, that I was completely clueless about this period of modern African history until now. Towards the end of this novel, one of the main characters, English expat Richard – who has started reporting from Biafra for the international press – meets two American foreign correspondents. Richard, who has been in the country since its inception and even considers himself Biafran, is dismayed and repulsed by the pair. Their questions centre on news of one dead white expat and they show little interest in the tens of thousands of black locals who have lost their lives, most in horrific circumstances.
“Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person,” Adichie writes, pointedly. It is a “rule” that still plays out today, across all forms of western media, and ultimately that may be why someone like me – caucausian, western, and well-educated – still remains ignorant of a tragedy like Biafra. I am horrified and chastened in equal measure.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Half Of A Yellow Sun’s 400-plus pages are split into four sections – the early 1960s and the late 1960s, and these are spliced together. Which is just as well, because the late 1960s are such a harrowing read that it was a relief to be momentarily spared halfway through and transported back to the pre-war period. Adichie also uses this as a device to explain events not fully elaborated upon in the initial time shift. It is told from the point of view, in a third-person narrative, of three of the main characters, Ugwu, Olanna, and the aforementioned Richard.
As the novel opens, young village boy Ugwu has just taken up the post of houseboy to Odenigbo, a mathematics professor and socialist-leaning intellectual. Odenigbo soon persuades his partner Olanna, a sociology professor, to leave London and live with him in Nsukka. Olanna is the daughter of Chief Ozobia, a highly influential businessman of dubious professional and personal morals based in Lagos. She has a twin sister, Kainene, who moves to Port Harcourt to look after her father’s business interests with her partner Richard, an Englishman and would-be author who is interested in Igbo-Ukwu art.
The two early 1960s sections of the book explore the relationships between the main characters, and the many secondary characters, and set the domestic and political scene in Nigeria during that period, hinting at the developing turmoil between the Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulani people that eventually explodes into civil war.
No spoilers from me on the late 1960s sections of the novel, except to say that amongst all the many, hideous horrors of conflict, Adichie also manages to capture the sheer banality of life during wartime – the desperation and exhaustion of trying to find adequate food, water and shelter, of the daily task of merely trying to stay alive. She paints vivid portraits that will stick in your head long after you’ve read the last page. And which may make you look at the nightly news grabs of current wars in a very different light.
There is no doubt Adichie is writing about what she knows – the history of her family and its larger community, indeed, the country. An Igbo born in 1977 – seven years after the war ended – she was raised in Nsukka, the university town where the pre-war sections of this book are set, the daughter of academics. The novel is dedicated to her grandparents – her grandmothers survived the war, but her grandfathers did not. In doing so, she has created a remarkable document of a conflict and time that she doesn’t want relegated to the footnotes of African history. One day we can only hope that another writer will do the same for Rwanda.
Andy half-jokes in his blog that he is almost out of therapy after reading Half Of A Yellow Sun, and I can definitely see his point. This novel will take you on an uncomfortable journey made all the more so for knowing that what is being written – and Adichie does not hold back on the horrific, graphic reality of this war – actually happened. DO NOT LET THIS DETER YOU. Great fiction, great novels, should sometimes be uncomfortable, difficult and emotionally draining. This is not a bad thing: this is what promotes our personal knowledge and, hopefully, our compassion and empathy. After all, as the adage goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.
In the afterword of my edition, Adichie speaks about finding an “emotional truth” in fiction writing; she also notes that she factually depicts the central events: “If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history”. She achieves it, and then some. This is beautifully and meticulously crafted writing from an astonishingly talented young writer (she was in her very late twenties when it was published). Like Andy, I intend to read her other books (she has written two and a collection of short stories).
You must read this book. You just must. That is all.