Set in the 1960s in Nigeria, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie follows the fates of a small cast of characters before and during the Biafran war, a civil war between different Nigerian peoples, the Hausa tribe in the north of the country, and the Igbo tribe in the south. The title takes its name from the flag of Biafra, the secessionist state which was fleetingly in existence from 1967 – 1970. In the early ’60s, Ugwu is hired as a houseboy to Odenigbo, a professor working at Nsukka University. Odenigbo hosts gatherings with other academics, dinner parties where they have heated debates about their country, revolution, secession and the after-effects of colonialism (Nigeria had recently gained independence from the United Kingdom). Olanna, his partner and fellow academic, moves in and things begin to change – Olanna and Odenigbo have a child, the political climate becomes volatile and they are ultimately forced to flee Nsukka. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene is heavily involved in keeping their family business running and tires of negotiating favours and bribes, and of courting the attention of people who bore her. She meets a British ex-pat, Richard, whose life becomes intertwined with hers and those of the Igbo people, becoming absorbed by their culture and language.
The narrative shifts back and forth between the early and late ’60s, split into four sections – I enjoyed this change, it was nice to slip back into the happier times before the conflict, before you knew what was to come. The characters each struggle to deal with everything that happens to them and those around them – their loyalties and love are tested, in a time when terrible things are happening, what they consider to be ‘unforgiveable’ is redefined. Adichie’s writing is so engrossing that you get drawn into the story, and the human impact of historical events, through the stories of her characters.
There are three main narrators in the novel. Ugwu is warm and funny and one of my favourite characters. He starts off trying to make sense of the academic world and reconcile that with the village life he has come from, then grows from a young teenager into a young man, learning about love, lust and loss. Olanna spent a lot of time travelling about within in the country and to London, and never seems settled, even before her life is uprooted by civil war. I found Richard a bit wet, he is in awe of Kainene and it seems a bit embarrassing in his Britishness, researching and photographing local customs, and trying rather unsuccessfully to write a book about Nigeria. I loved some of the minor characters, particularly Kainene who is very different from her twin, much more blunt and braver in many ways, and is always active in finding solutions for the problems she encounters. She seems very glamorous and self-assured, but the reader is left wondering if that can save her. The ending of the book felt a little quick to come, I would have liked to have found out more about how the characters recovered, and how it affected their life later on. I guess I’ll just have to come up with my own ideas and what this could be.
I have been thinking about this book a lot since I finished reading it, thinking about all of the things I have learnt from it. I realised just how much food and drink are central to the story – in the parts set in the early ’60s, Ugwu is constantly thinking about what he will cook, comparing his cooking to Olanna’s, and Harrison’s (Richard’s houseboy), as well as being very suspicious of Odenigbo’s mother’s cooking. With food comes power. It plays a massive role in cultural identity, identifying you with certain regions, countries and your own family and friends. In a country that is being ripped apart, food is something everyone is trying to hold on to, something to remind of who you are and where you’re from. In the late ’60s, Olanna spends hours queuing for food supplies to feed her family as famine spreads; it’s also a cultural indicator and a weapon of snobbery – Harrison thinks British food is far superior to Nigerian cooking, and Olanna is horrified at the thought of Baby eating lizard despite the fact that rations dwindle day by day. Odenigbo in particular, struggles with alcohol – at the beginning it is something to enjoy in the company of friends, but in grief it turns into a release, a way of numbing himself to the pain. In an unpredictable environment, where boys are captured and turned into child soldiers, women are raped, people are massacred and refugees are cut off from food and aid, it is all the characters can do to just survive.
This book is rich with detail, complicated characters and powerful stories. I loved it, and was unsettled by it, by the stories it relates of the cruelty done to the Biafran people by the Nigerians and vice versa during the conflict, as well as by the Biafran people to themselves. I love how educational this book has been, I was constantly looking things up online, reading more about the conflict, the culture, the food, music and fashion. Don’t you just love it when books open up new worlds to you? Parts of it aren’t easy to read due to their subject matter but I would highly recommend this book, not just for its history but for the way it opens up a different world. I have added both of Adichie’s novels to my wish list – her début novel Purple Hibiscus and her recent novel Americanah, published in 2013.