reading my way through every country in the world…

#24 – Nigeria: No half measures

Half of a Yellow Sun
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Harper Collins, 2009

Winner, Orange Prize for Fiction, 2007

General reading value: 5/5
Armchair travel value: 5/5

One thing that worried me about undertaking a challenge centred around international literature is that there might be a preponderance of war books. Not that there is anything wrong with reading conflict lit but in succession it can get draining, depressing and desensitising.

I therefore approached Half of a Yellow Sun with a bit of trepidation. Sure, I had heard all the glowing reviews but a 400-odd page novel about the Nigerian-Biafra Civil War 1967-70? I knew it wasn’t going to be a laugh-fest. If only I had known what an incredibly enriching experience I was about to have, I might have more swiftly delved into this book which will now occupy a central spot in my list of faves.

Biafra Flag - Half of a Yellow Sun

Yes, it is about war but it is as much about the wars we fight in our personal lives – with each other, within ourselves – as it is about the political battles. The novel moves back and forth between the early sixties (pre-war) and the late sixties (during the war) and is told mainly through three characters’ intersecting experiences. These characters are Ugwu an Igbo houseboy who works for the enigmatic, politically agitating and academically brilliant professor Odenigbo; Olanna – a beautiful and wilful woman who is daughter to a wealthy Nigerian couple and becomes wife to Odenigbo; and Richard – a British ex-pat writer who falls in love with Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene.

The first part of the novel is devoted to introducing these three characters – and through them, a large cast of others. While political and national issues play a key role in how these characters form and develop relationships with one another, they are of secondary importance; instead the focus is on  how these characters relate to one another and what makes each of them tick. This is a master stroke by Adichie as it enables the reader to form attachment to the characters and both care about and understand why they will come to behave as they do, when their lives are thrown into turmoil by war and what was perhaps sitting below the surface is forced above. We learn, for example, that the relationship between Olanna and Kainene is strained due largely to Olanna’s beauty and Kainene’s plainness, resulting in privileges being afforded to the former – at least from the perspective of her sister – and an inferiority complex in the latter. The complexities of this relationship are tested not only by war but by betrayal and it is surprising who emerges from this as the more admirable person.

Map of Biafra 1967-70

The rest of the book then moves back and forth between the chaos of war and the unsettling period that precedes it – an effective way of constantly reminding the reader both what is lost by these characters  – when war takes away their homes, possessions, family and friends, food, dignity and, at times, sanity – but also what is gained in terms of their strength, love for one another and patriotism.

As someone who had absolutely no knowledge about the circumstances that led to the civil war in Nigeria, this book gave me a thorough education but more importantly inspired me to do additional reading, a surprising outcome given my aforementioned reluctance to read this book.

The novel is also littered with untranslated Igbo phrases which Adichie has claimed is meant to represent the constant negotiation between languages that occurs among the Igbo people. This is a little confusing at first as the reader is unsure whether the Igbo word or phrase is saying something additional to or the same as the English preceding or following it but after awhile it becomes an important and sharp reminder to the reader that one of the essential messages of the book is the Nigerian person’s resistance to  their culture being treated as a Western conception.

I am Nigerian because a white man ceated Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came”

The strength of the female characters in this novel, which is unparalleled by that of any of the male characters who, indeed, seem to become somewhat undone and broken by the war, is rendered all the more salient by Adichie’s deft side references to the imbalance in gender relations occurring at that time in Nigeria; an imbalance which only becomes more pronounced when war brings out the basest and most bestial of instincts in men – including in Ugwu who, during an encounter with a barmaid, destroys the reader’s conception of this character as a reasonably gentle person.

And that is what Adichie does best – she sets up her readers to feel one way about the characters and then with the turning of a page completely changes these images, leaving one feeling conflicted and confused as to which characters deserve our allegiance and loyalty and which do not. This actually makes the book more satisfying as the characters emerge as complex and unpredictable rather than flat and one-dimensional.

And in the end, that is how I came to feel about Nigeria itself – a country with a complicated history and political and cultural system; a place where the traditional butts heads with the modern and all the while a strong passion and lust for life flows. Half of a Yellow Sun brings to the forefront a period in Nigeria’s history that was spectacular for the destruction it caused and for the little that was gained but a period, nonetheless, that should be better known about and understood.

Until next time…

The Literary Nomad xx

More on Nigeria…

Largest city: Abuja


Area: 923,768km2

Language: English

Religion: Muslims and Christians

Currency: Naira

Delay your stay: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe; The palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutola; The Famished Road by ben Okri; The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens

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