Per the recommendation of a fellow book club member and because author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was speaking at the university (which unfortunately I ended up missing), I decided to pick up this book. The title, Half of a Yellow Sun, comes from the symbol on the short-lived Biafran flag, which mirrors the hope of the Biafrans for a new dawn as a new nation.
Told from three different, interconnected perspectives, the 4 sections span the 1960s as Nigeria becomes independent and then descends into civil war. The Biafran region, an oil-rich area dominated by the Christian Igbo tribes, attempted to secede following an unsuccessful coup and the resultant ethnic cleansing by the Hausa Muslims. Prior to the war, Ugwu, a houseboy from an impoverished and rural Igbo village, moves to the city to work for university professor Odenigbo, who is English-educated and has strong views about the political future of his homeland. Moving in with them is Olanna, Odenigbo’s beautiful mistress from a wealthy Igbo family, whose twin sister Kainene has drifted from her. Englishman Richard falls hard for Kainene as he did for the Igbo art he came to study and is caught up in the ensuing conflict, despite being a former colonialist.
As I mentioned, there are 4 sections, the first and third of which take place in the early 1960s and the second and fourth of which take place in the late 1960s, during and after the Biafran war. The ploy of switching between time settings is meant to create suspense so that the readers are anxious to find out how things play out, but instead really just annoyed me. I would’ve preferred a more linear narrative, though I liked that the book covered both pre- and post-war to show how the characters developed (mostly from bad to worse).
I despised the majority of the main characters, particularly Odenigbo and Ugwu. They reminded me of my least favorite book, Things Fall Apart, because of their condescending parochialism and patriarchal attitudes, similar to that of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo. I would advise you to listen to Adichie’s TedxEuston talk on feminism because I strongly agree that everyone should be a feminist. But that’s certainly not the case in this book, which made me SO angry – though perhaps that was Adichie’s point to make her point.
In addition to numerous mentions of war rape, women are sexualized throughout the narrative, subjected to the male gaze. This is especially apparent through the character of Olanna, whose sexuality is a driving force of her personality. She is known as the beautiful one, and uses that identity to manipulate men. Although at the beginning she objects to her parent’s essentially pimping her out for their material gain, she easily slips into a role as a man’s mistress, as she is known, and caves to his every whim. Then, she consistently acts jealous of and sometimes behaves cruelly towards other women, especially those she believes her husband has slept with (truely or falsely).
The most feminist character is Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister who is known for being the ugly one. Perhaps because of her lack of good looks, she carves a life for herself, as a strong businesswoman in her family’s company and as an independent actor and thinker. Towards the end, she is the sole person who exhibits care towards others, organizing supplies for the refugee camp while the other characters only care for themselves and are all talk and no action. She’s a strong and admirable woman, and yet her fate is the hardest.
I have mixed feelings towards Richard, an Englishman who falls in love with Kainene. He makes some mistakes, but his worst is to be white and to claim to identify as a Biafran. He is simultaneously over-aware of and oblivious to the feelings native Biafrans hold for him because of his true identity as a former colonizer. Because of his eagerness to prove himself, he often gives off a smug racial superiority, not just over some Nigerians but also over non-Africans who are caught up in the war.
Like many of my experiences with historical fiction, I think perhaps I should’ve picked up a history of the Biafran War instead, because that was the part that intrigued me and yet the book portrayed the conflict is such a confusing manner that I learned almost nothing from it. Don’t get me wrong, because Adichie’s descriptions of war are terrifying and heart-breaking. This problem stemmed from being held to the character’s viewpoints. They were wrapped up in their petty dramas and, for all their supposed intelligence, there was rarely an educated conversation about the situation. By the end, their bluster had no backing as clearly they didn’t behave in a manner that suggested they believed in their own rhetoric. For this reason, I sympathized more with the supporting characters. Even though their actions were morally questionable, at least individuals like the poet and the Major both contributed to the war effort and followed through on their own beliefs.
I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. The characters and plot made me vacillate between exasperated to enraged to sad. I guess that’s what well-written books are supposed to do, and I did respect the writing style of especially the story within the story of “The World Stayed Silent While They Died,” but I certainly can’t say I enjoyed this book.