Rating: 5 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness challenge
‘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, soso gi.’
Aunty Ifeka says this to her niece Olanna about her boyfriend, halfway through the book. She could easily have been saying it about Nigeria.
I didn’t know what to expect from Half of a Yellow Sun. I came to it completely blind, based on people talking about how good Adichie is as a writer, how she is influenced by Achebe. I read nothing about what the book is about. All I knew was that Adachie is Nigerian and this book was about Nigeria in the 1960s.
I have learned more from this story about people living through intensity of personal feeling and political turmoil than I could have done from a history of Nigeria. There is no tub thumping message contained within Adichie’s words. Her words educate and reveal truths more subtly than that.
Here are things that struck me about the book:
The way Adichie eases us into the story. The way she introduces the characters, as though we have dropped into their lives to observe them going about their business. The way those daily goings on reveal the characters of those we need to care about when the daily goings on change. The way there is no exposition, no setting out of the political situation in Nigeria just after independence, other than the conversations people have at Odenigbo’s house that are overheard by Ugwu, the choice Kainene makes to capitalise on her father’s business interests, and her friendships and business dealings with the military.
The way the situation turns to civil war, and the cynicism of British divide and rule used to unify three separate tribes into a fake country called Nigeria becomes the horror of three separate tribes fighting for power and autonomy, observed through the filter of a white man who thinks he can become Igbo and the black people who are truly living the experience.
The jumping back and forth in time, pre-civil war, civil war, pre-civil war, civil war again, to layer the personal wars between genders, between family members, on top of the wars between tribes.
As the story progressed, it began to feel as though the relationship between Olanna and Kainene stood for Biafra and Nigeria. Two women who should have been on the same side forced into hatred by personal choices and the random way the world works. Two countries that should have supported each other’s independence, plunged into civil war by the mistrust and greed for power built up by British colonial governance.
The person I loved most, the one connecting all these middle class people, observing and facilitating their lives in peace and in war, living a different experience of the war to theirs, and finding his own voice through those experiences, is the wonderful Ugwu. He seems inconsequential a lot of the time, because of his servant position, but actually he is the heart of the book.
Everything in the novel combines like poetry, like a fable or a saga about the birth of a nation. At times, it was incredibly difficult to read. The stories of what happen in war are brutal but not sensational. There were plenty of times when I had to stop reading, because what I was reading made me feel sad or angry or sick to my stomach. But there were plenty of other times when I felt the characters’ joy and laughed with them, too.
Ms Adichie provides a list of books she found useful in researching her novel. When I’ve let this one settle, when I’ve read something more cheering, I might take a look at that list.
And when I next look through the waxed fancy prints in our collection at work, and think about the work we have done with Nigerian women in understanding their symbolism, the names Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa will have different resonances for me now.