Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was fantastic. I think I would not be cliche in calling it an epic saga. Adichie writes about Nigeria in the 1960’s, a time in Nigeria’s history where the country separated into Nigeria and Biafra.
This book was no summer breezy delight. It was more like a large steak meal that had to be savoured for the subtle details and difficult subject matter, chewed thoroughly because it was impossible to binge read, and prolonged because the characters were so real that I didn’t want the book to ever end.
I am grateful for my Book Club because without them I would never have found this novel. I am a lover of history, so this novel was such a wonderful surprise. Over the years I have enjoyed Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massey and Exodus by Leon Uris and Half of a Yellow Sun seemed to be the best of both: it had such minute details about politics and history of Nigeria and it also had such beautifully written characters that I am convinced they actually exist.
The premise of the novel is that two sisters, twins, live through Biafra’s push to be independent of Nigeria and the heartbreaking struggles they endure and the people who surround them. From the start to the surprising end, both women have faith in their ideals and their beliefs and it allows them to survive all kinds of horrors of war. Conscription, starvation, bombings, mass killings, torture, rape.
My favourite character in the novel is Olanna, one of the sisters. She is an educated woman who is not afraid to assert her power or declare her ideas. She creates a community with those around her by loving them and seeing every person as a human being. From the start of the war to the end of the war, Olanna survives and does not become bitter; she continues to love those around her and work for a better future. As we learn more about Olanna, we see that she has a fierce love for her family, even when they hurt her. She especially has a deep love for her twin sister Kainene. In a discussion about reincarnation, Olanna states, “When I come back in my next life, Kainene will be my sister” (pg 541). The strength of her love in the midst of so much hurt and sorrow and pain shows the capacity of humanity to forgive each other and see our faults as part of who we are, not all of who we are.
In the midst of chaos, confusion, and devastation, Olanna remains constant. Constant in her love, but also in her beliefs. She refuses to marry her boyfriend because she does not want to change what they have; she does not want their relationship to slowly drift. In the middle of deciding whether to marry her boyfriend Odenigbo she has a conversation with her Aunty Ifeka and her aunt’s advice is this: “‘You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?’ Aunty Ifeka said. ‘Your life belongs to you and you alone'” (pg 283). This advice strengthens Olanna and allows her to love Odenigbo yet not lose herself in the process. She becomes partners with Odenigbo and they talk and share their ideas as equals.
All this being said, Olanna is capable of doubt and fear, yet she channels that fear into action. Her experiences of unexpected bomb raids force her to see herself in the big picture and her realization motivates and mobilizes her: “The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life” (pg 351). Throughout her time in refugee camps, in cramping housing, and everywhere in between, she strives to make a difference. She shares, she offers advice, she remains faithful in the movement, and she listens to others. Her kindness is never destroyed by the bombs or the bullets. She chooses love over hate.
Adichie’s novel is full of characters who will undoubtedly worm their way into your hearts, to the point where you hold your breath waiting for them to make their way through something horrible. The emotional reaction to this novel is important because it tells the story of so many Igbo people who survived, and who did not survive, the fight for independence from British-influenced Nigeria. Not all stories end happily and the people of Biafra were not successful and were accessioned back into Nigeria after three destructive and deadly years.
As a post-colonial look at Africa, this novel was a fascinating glimpse into the aftereffects of the “Scramble for Africa,” and a history I knew nothing about. I am interested to hear what the other members of my Book Club will have to say.
“I am drawn, as a reader, to detail-drenched stories about human lives affected as much by the internal as by the external, the kind of fiction that Jane Smiley nicely describes as ‘first and foremost about how individuals fit, or don’t fit, into their social worlds.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)