I cannot describe how much I love and admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books. She is a wonderful writer and Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautiful, but also harrowing, showcase of her talent.
It is a novel about the Biafran War in the 1960s and I will admit that I had pretty much no knowledge of the history of the war before reading this book. Reading Half of a Yellow Sun was a learning experience and I found myself googling Biafra to find out more about what happened – a novel that can spark your interest and make you want to learn about something new is always a winner in my eyes. It was also rather timely as I recently took out a collection of Chinua Achebe’s poetry from my local library, which includes some of his poems written about the Biafran war. These poems took on more meaning for me by reading them alongside my rudimentary research and the fictional characters in Adichie’s novel. The fact that the horrors of this period are so infrequently discussed and remembered is quite shocking.
Yet despite the real events that create the backdrop for this novel, it did not feel like a historical novel in the sense that the characters took centre stage, rather than their setting. Perhaps this sounds like an odd thing to say but what I mean is that Adichie’s character’s are strong enough that they are not overshadowed by the plot; the characters drive the story, not the other way around. The characters each have an individual voice and personality that feels very ‘real’ – they have that indescribable ‘something’ that signals truely great fiction. Adichie herself describes this ‘something’ as “emotional truth”:
a quality different from honesty and more resilient than fact.
I can only say that Adichie definitely creates ’emotional truth’ in her writing, which is a attested by the strong attachment I felt towards her characters, even though their experiences are completely different to my own.
This balance in the novel, between the real events and the fictional characters, is aided by the structure of the book. It is split into four sections titled ‘early sixties’ and ‘late sixties’. The first section is the ‘early sixties’, before the war breaks out, and this introduction to the characters in their normal, domestic lives creates greater impact for the decriptions of how their lives have been affected by the war later in the novel.
The main focus is on Olanna and her partner, Obenigbo, both university lecturers living in Nsukka, their houseboy, Ugwu, and Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister, and her partner, Richard, a white, British writer. They are drawn together in ways that evolve and complicate as the novel progresses; their relationships with each other change and it is interesting to wonder how much of this happens because of the war and how much is purely a product of natural time. All these characters, with the exception of Ugwu, are privileged because of their education and wealth, yet their lives are by no means perfect before the war. These imperfections and realities enable you to relate to the characters and really sympathise with their experience of the war. I think war can be a difficult subject to write about effectively in terms of how the reader engages with a novel; as many of us are fortunate enough never to have experienced war first-hand, it is easy to feel detached from the story because many of the events seem simply unimaginable. By contrast, Adichie’s writing is powerful and emotive and I have been thinking about the novel since I finished it several days ago.
As I come to the end of my review, I realise I have not really given a synopsis of the novel at all but if you do read the novel (which you definitely should!) then perhaps it is better to read it as I did, with no preconceptions about the plot. Read it and enjoy the story … and once you have, my next recommendation would be Adichie’s other novel ‘Americanah’, which remains my favourite of hers and one of my favourite books full stop!