Lately I’ve been reading books that aren’t all that uplifting. I’m not sure why, but I get sucked into these emotional roller coasters and I can’t put them down. Half of a Yellow Sun is by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer. The book takes place during the Nigerian civil war in 1967-1970. Biblioglobal, a blogger set out to read a book from every country in the world, recommended this book to me earlier this year when I announced I wanted to read more novels from all over the world. Half of a Yellow Sun won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. Adichie was shortlisted for the award in 2004 for her first novel, Purple Hibiscus.
When I opened the book to the first page I knew it would be a tough read. I haven’t read too many novels about war that aren’t. Catch -22 is a funny war novel, but it still has moments of sadness. However, Adichie tricked me. The first hundred pages or so weren’t depressing at all. In fact I found them enchanting. The novel chronicles the lives of twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, and Ugwu, a young houseboy for Odenigbo, a university professor. During these pages, the author introduces the characters and how they live their lives. Olanna is a beautiful young woman and is Odenigbo’s lover. Kainene is less attractive but has a fiery personality. She starts a relationship with Richard, an Englishman who is attempting to write a book. Ugwu is a sweet boy who wants to impress his master so he can receive an education. All of them have hopes, desires, and dreams.
I started to wonder if I misjudged the book. Maybe I wouldn’t need a box of Kleenex next to me. Then the war started. Before reading this novel, I wasn’t all that familiar with Nigerian history. The Nigerian-Biafran War started in July 1967 and didn’t end until January 1970. Political and ethnic struggles were the root cause of the war. The Igbo attempted to secede from Nigeria and formed a new state, the Republic of Biafra. Nigeria couldn’t squash the rebellion quickly and resorted to cutting off all aid to Biafra, leading to starvation and disease. Thousands died. Thousands more suffered. The war ended over forty years ago, but the tensions leading up to the war have not been resolved completely. Adichie has stated that’s why she wrote this novel, to highlight the war and the Igbo people.
Once the war started, I knew that tone of the novel would change drastically. Olanna, Kainene, and Ugwu are part of the newly founded Biafra. As I mentioned above the measures taken by the Nigerians were drastic and far reaching. Not only are there scenes of ethnic cleansing that are horrifying, just reading about how they survived day to day is difficult. That isn’t to say that the novel isn’t good. It’s quite good actually. The author sucked me into their lives. Frantically I devoured the pages to see what would happen to them. Who would survive? Who wouldn’t?
This novel is a fantastic character study of people living during dramatic events. I won’t lie, it’s an emotional book to read. I didn’t reach for the Kleenex too often, but there were moments. Mostly this novel made me angry. How people can treat others with such contempt is beyond me. The horrors of war affect all of them, and not many on either side are completely innocent.
Has anyone read this novel or her first novel, Purple Hibiscus? What are your thoughts? Now I’m reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Another war novel. I may need therapy.