Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s haunting second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007, tells the story of five people, two couples and the young houseboy who works for one of the men, in Nigeria during the 1960s, a time period when the country’s ethnic divisions led them into civil war, famine, and genocide, a cycle of events that keeps repeating itself on that continent right up to the present-day threat of famine in Somalia. The novel’s tragedies are both large and small, but Adichie weaves her narrative threads cleanly and creates tension and uncertainty even though the disastrous results of the war are a matter of record.
Adichie, born seven years after the war ended, lost both of her grandfathers in that conflict, known as the Nigerian-Biafran war after the Igbo state that tried to secede from Nigeria, but her grandmothers survived it and were primary resources for Adichie, who seems to have put an enormous amount of research into the novel. (She even provides a page-long list of nonfiction books about Nigeria’s history up to and through the Biafran conflict.) The British, who created and even named Nigeria by uniting disparate ethnic groups under a single colonial authority, come in for quite a bit of blame for creating the powder keg that made ethnic conflict inevitable between the minority Igbo, who held positions of political and commercial authority before the war, and the majority Hausa, who resented the Igbo’s status and come off in the book as the African equivalent of the Germans under Hitler.
The brilliance of Half of a Yellow Sun lies in its constant focus on the individual characters; Adichie never steps back to give long-winded explanations of the political situation in Nigeria, instead informing the reader through the characters’ experiences. Each of the five central characters, all of whom are Igbo, gets his or her own plot line, although all five are interconnected, including two fraternal twin sisters, their lovers (one a revolutionary professor, the other an English expat), and the houseboy, Ugwu. All five begin the novel in comfort and relative wealth in the western part o Nigeria, then flee to the new Igbo state of Biafra, where the war and blockade drive the people into increasing levels of poverty and degradation, culminating in the food shortage that led the Biafran government to surrender and accept reabsorption into Nigeria. During the crisis, there are romantic betrayals, losses of friends, a schism between the sisters, forced conscriptions, corruption, and worse, enough to fill an 800-page Russian novel, and similarly rich with metaphors for the larger conflict.
Of those five characters, two share starring roles: Olanna, the beautiful sister who falls for the revolutionary professor Odeniwgo; and Ugwu, Odenigwo’s houseboy. Ugwu goes from poverty to luxury and back to poverty over the course of the book and gives us a perspective on the war largely untainted by historical ethnic hatreds while also providing an outlet for Adichie to demonstrate the war’s effect on the youngest generation (and to provide us with some sliver of hope for Nigeria’s future). Olanna’s reluctance to marry and her role in the betrayals within both relationships test her patience and force her to examine the depth of her love for Odenigwo and for her fraternal twin sister, the “ugly” Kainene. Olanna is victimized, then victimizes another character, but is she fully responsible for her actions or merely paying the pain forward?
Adichie’s choice to structure the novel in four parts, alternating between the prewar period and the period of the war itself, also creates some artificial tension by withholding key plot points until the jump back to the earlier time in section three. But there’s also value in the structure because of the way she reveals some causes of the ethnic conflict, then shows some of the conflict, and returns to the causes before completing the story. Everything that happens within Half of a Yellow Sun has a cause, and often someone to blame along with it, with the British and the Hausa earning their fair shares. The author has even commented on how she believes many of the fundamental causes of the war still exist today; despite Nigeria’s massive natural resources, nearly half the population lives below the poverty line, and ethnic divisions continue to foment conflict in the southeastern part of the country. One of the five characters is no longer present as the book concludes, a metaphor for the unhealing wound left on the country by the war and by the pernicious effects of British arrogance and racism.
I’m a big fan of postcolonial literature in general, and particularly liked Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and its sequel No Longer at Ease, both of which explore the effects of British colonial rule on Nigerians but do so in slimmer works with less intricate plots. Adichie’s great achievement here is exploring that same theme while giving us multiple compelling characters across rich plot lines while presenting the stark realities of the darkest moment in this artificial country’s brief history. From a literary/critical perspective, it’s the best novel I’ve read this year.
Next up: I’m a bit behind on my writeups, but I have already finished the phenomenal nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (currently half off at amazon) and have moved on to Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations.