Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a compelling and heartbreaking story of Biafra’s struggle for independence from Nigeria in the mid-1960s. On one hand, it is the story of discontent between Igbo and Yoruba people forced to co-exist born out of Europe’s carving up of Africa. On the other hand, the reader closely follows Ugwu, a village boy given a new life working for a professor; Olanna and Kainene twin daughters of a wealthy Igbo father; Richard, a white guy who lived in Nigeria as a writer and journalist and Odenigbo the professor who believed in Biafra and helped it emancipate but his personal life was far less noble having a had a child outside of his relationship with Olanna. These characters are essential to the story allowing the reader to experience multiple perspectives of Biafra’s struggle.
Right and wrong has no straight path in the book. Ugwu was conscripted into fighting in the Biafra war. Then he was coerced but still chose to rape a girl after she had been raped by his conscripted friend. Adichie’s detailed description horrifies when she writes about the girl who, “hated him with silent eyes.” For the rest of the story, I look forward to Ugwu demise as a soldier only to be jived.
The drama is enticing. When Kainene and Olanna reconnected after Olanna slept with Richard, Kainene goes across the Biafra/Nigeria border to never return. The reader nor Olanna never know how and if Kainene is killed. The more Kainene was revealed in the novel the easier it became to love her character and hurt over this scene. She was the unattractive sister who went against her parents’ wishes to date a white man and yet ran their business while she tended to the orphaned children of war.
Adichie’s characters come alive in her story. Each one was whole and flawed the moment the reader meets them. Even some of the side characters were well constructed. Odenigbo’s village Mom did the most to ruin the marriage between her son and Olanna. It was heartbreaking to figure out like Olanna did, she couldn’t have children. Then to find out Odenigbo got a village girl (brought by his Mom around him) pregnant the first time. Finally, Olanna (the pretty daughter) adopts this child and loves her like her own after the village girl abandons the child. This kind of love is rare in life and on the page.
Then the reader also gets a picture of how politics in Nigeria work. Kainene and Olanna’s parents try to pawn Kainene off to a minister (a high-ranking official) in order to get a contract beyond an already trifling 10% kickback that is an accepted and standard practice. The father is described as someone from a low social standing that rose up. Their Mom is described as superficial. The reader is allowed a glimpse of their life when the Mom confesses that her husband has a mistress and is flaunting her publicly. It’s never made given who is right or wrong as the cards fall. To find Olanna talking to her father about the situation is a complex moment.
I read a comment online describing Half of a Yellow Sun’s as being as dramatic as a Nigerian soap opera. I’ve never seen one. But what I can say is while the plot twists and turns it doesn’t leave the realm of plausibility—a foundation of incredible fiction. Although none of these characters existed in real life, I imagine versions of these people during the Biafra war were in fact real.
Adichie’s writing style is vastly different than what I am familiar with. But from reading her story I was forced to become a sharper reader to understand which I believe will help me be a sincerer writer. The time magazine summed this book up best when it said, “a gorgeous pitiless account of love, violence, and betrayal.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche now can count me in as a fan.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) received his MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He’s eyeing agents to help publish his coming of age story, Christine’s Dream – A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been published in TSR: The South Hampton Review, Rigorous, Tishman Review and is forthcoming in Fourth Genre. When not writing he runs for the thrill of crossing the finish line. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.com.
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