Published in 2006. This Edition: Harper Perennial, 2007.
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2007.
“ ‘Why don’t you want the money?’ Kainene asked him.
‘What will I buy with the money?’ he asked.
‘You must be a foolish man,’ Kainene said. ‘There is much you can buy with money.’
‘Not in this Biafra.’ ”
Half of a Yellow Sun is a meeting place for stories, told by three vastly different, irrevocably connected characters. Ugwu, a precocious boy from an impoverished village, is sent to tend house for the eccentric, eloquent Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nigeria’s Nsukka University. Overcome by the incredible improvement in his living situation, Ugwu becomes quickly devoted to pleasing his ‘Master’, as he insists on referring to the enigmatic lecturer and fervent anti-establishment nationalist. It is not long before the distractingly beautiful Olanna, the daughter of a wealthy, influential Lagos statesman, eschews her pampered circumstances to move in with her lover Odenigbo. Olanna’s gentle compassion towards Ugwu endears him to her, as simultaneously, her potent sensuality leaves the boy achingly aware of her allure. Neither is Olanna’s sensuality lost on Richard, a sensitive, thoughtful British national, who falls quickly under the spell of Olanna’s acerbically witty, less comely twin sister, Kainene.
The novel is about the marriage of circumstance and coincidence that envelops these five, set against the backdrop of the 1967-1970 Nigerian-Biafran War.
Wait. Do you think, as you open the first pages of this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s sophomore novel, that you’re in for a torrid, sexy drama-romance lightly pedestalled atop an intriguing war-torn background? The novel’s background is its foreground. This novel’s setting is immediate… it is pertinent, at all times, to the concerns of the book, to its intertwining themes of love, loss, betrayal and survival. If you began with this book knowing little, as did I, of the Nigerian-Biafran conflict, you will not end it in the same manner. More than that, it is likely that you will be prompted to discover more, to unearth historical documents, to explore archived discussions, news posts and articles on the Internet. It is what I did, and why? I believe that, once you have read this novel, o discerning blog-reader, you may well understand that I was simply compelled to do so. It has been a long time since I’ve stumbled across a read this immersive.
I am no stranger to the powerful world of African (and African-Diaspora) literature. I have trembled and sighed at the bone-chilling moral fable of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I have laughed, belly-deep, and wondered just as deeply, over the Brother Jero plays of Wole Soyinka. I confess that I have wept at the most excruciating passages of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat. Maya Angelou’s works—autobiographic and poetic—pull directly and insistently at my heartstrings and my conscience. I could go on, but I shall not, apart from adding that Adichie deserves a seat at any table where great, moving, soul-stirring African works of literature are being discussed. Indeed, Achebe himself invites Adichie to sit at that table, with the assertion that she is “a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”
In Half of a Yellow Sun, it becomes evident, after only a few chapters have elapsed, that one is reckoning with a master storyteller, and no mistake. The novel’s timeline spans a near-decade, but the passage of time under Adichie’s plot-weaving is anything but linear. We may be unsure, as we read, of who says what, and perhaps even of who is speaking for whom. The writer reels us in with the expectancy of revelation, offering snatches of insight at telling intervals—and the skill resides, in retrospect, on not being exactly sure when we were reeled in. All is revealed, save one thing, by the novel’s end. That one thing lifts the story Adichie tells to the highest point of its possibility, transforming a potentially fitting ending to one that turns itself over in our minds for months, for as long as we keep even a sliver of this story on our mental bookshelves.
The characters of Half of a Yellow Sun are drawn with an expert hand, both in their evolution over the time of the novel (how they are altered by the horrors of surviving in civil unrest, how they remain the same), and in the scope of their relationships with each other. The discerning reader will sigh, and marvel, at Ugwu’s growth, at Olanna’s secret thoughts, at Kainene’s deceptive coldness. There will be amused concern at Richard’s alienated foibles, and grateful acceptance of his growing familiarity with an intoxicating landscape, as well as the woman who intoxicates him. One will wonder at how Olanna can possibly love Odenigbo, in his most abysmal moments, and exclaim, a chapter later, that she could love no other man so wisely, or so truly.
Then, there is the war itself… surely a volatile, capricious character in its own right. To become acquainted with the face of war can be a disconcerting thing, even with the comforting veil of distance, of sitting in one’s plump, overstuffed armchair, sipping tea while murmuring disconsolately over bombings in locales with exotic names. This novel works towards stripping away that veil of comfort. Whether it can be said to be entirely successful is up for debate, but surely it edges us closer to the seat of conflict, to the heart of the criminality and humanity of war. To care about a war when it has not happened to us—when it has not touched our lives personally—this can be a difficult thing to prompt in even a sensitive, educated reader. Adichie does this. She has us smell the smell of burning flesh, taste the sourness of dirty water. She has us dig in the rubble for those we love, and in so doing we learn, perhaps (even if we do not admit it readily to ourselves) how we would fight, flee, suffer or survive, in the context of our own wars.