Friday 9 May 2014

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought

I spent some of my formative years living in Nigeria, so I read Half of a Yellow Sun for some insight into what I had seen, but never understood. It's now on my top shelf all-time best-loved books.

Recent tragedies in Nigeria add to an unhappy history. One of its saddest chapters is the Biafran War. In 1967, when the Igbo people broke away to form the independent nation of Biafra, a brutal civil war followed, lasting three years and claiming over a million lives. But Half of a Yellow Sun is so much more than an important history lesson.

This evocative and emotionally absorbing book opens the door on a country and a people faced with irreversible change. Many characters in historical novels are depicted as innocent victims, battered and buffeted by the forces of politics. Adichie shows how sufferers can also be perpetrators and how people retain humanity under inhuman circumstances. The realities of war and actual events are not simply told but experienced through the lives of upper-class, educated and passionate Nigerians. When their bourgeois world explodes, complex moral layers of identity and belonging unfold. Her characters, complete with flaws and sometimes erroneous judgement, inspire great affection.

Considering the subject matter and the fact the author was under thirty when she wrote this, it’s astounding how she simply observes, never sliding into bitterness or polemic. As well as her unflinching look at the legacy of colonialism, Adichie's novel exposes the range and depth of African prejudices; religious, class, tribal, territorial and familial.

A restrained and beautiful writer, she never shows off, telling her story in understated crisp prose. The title of the book refers to the symbol on the Biafran flag, intended to represent the dawn of a new nation. Despite the tragic death of the Biafran dream, the horrors and the heartbreak, Half of a Yellow Sun is uplifting; more sunrise than sunset.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: The Inheritance of Loss, In the Name of the Father, Disgrace.

Avoid if you dislike: Unpalatable truths about colonialism, prejudice and human nature.

Ideal accompaniments: Plantain Moi Moi, a Chapman cocktail and Femi Kuti.

Genre: Literary fiction

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