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Book review ”Half of a Yellow Sun”

Half of a Yellow Sun (2007), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Title: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)

Grading: 5/5

Genre: Fiction, African

Reminds me of: Animal Farm (George Orwell)

Why? I wanted to niche myself towards African literature as well (a rather new genre)

It is the early 1960s, the pan-African independence movement is on the rise, but nationalism falls apart under tribal and religious differences. In eastern Nigeria, a rich middle-class family seals big corporate deals and enjoy big parties with the government elite. We follow the houseboy Ugwu’s induction into middle-class life as he works for Master Odenigbo, a university professor, and his fiancé Olanna, the beautiful and charming of the rich family’s twin sister, whom we also follow throughout the novel. Richard, a shy Englishman, courts the other twin sister, Kainene, who is independent and straightforward. These three, Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard, will have to fight for the lives when, after two military coups in Nigeria, the Igbo people of the Bifran south-eastern part of the country declares itself independent and Nigeria bombs the Biafran people into submission.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in an epic manner, where she brilliantly brings three classes’ perspectives in the war by describing the village boy (Ugwu), the middle-class well-travelled woman (Olanna), and the foreigner (the Briton, Richard) and how they live out their lives in pre-(early 1960s) and inter-war Biafra (1967-70). She has been awarded for this novel, as shown in the picture below: the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, was short-listed for the same prize a few years earlier.

This was how I got to learn about Adichie to begin with, as the TED-ophile I am, watching this TED talk whilst studying French in Nice (I started reading the novel in Oslo, Norway, and ended it in Köping, Sweden), earlier this spring:

I was so fascinated by this woman, she was so charming and so incredibly charismatic, and had such deep views on story-telling (not literature, per se) that I researched her a bit extra (I even blogged about her at the time!) and found her latest novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which alludes to the Biafran flag (where a rising sun is depicted as half of a sun). I have listened to a few interviews with her and read the afterword in the pocket book, and I understand that she writes this novel in order to shine light upon not only the Biafran War and the atrocities that followed (the starvation, the isolation, the fear, the displacement, the diseases), but also to include human fates and stories in the historical account. She writes about how many African peoples have put their hopes to big leaders that eventually came to fail them. This novel truly conveys those factors.

She uses Odenigbo’s evening discussions with the Igbo and Nigerian intelligentsia from the university and government to give the reader a sense of how the intellectuals were seeing the events and what was going on not just in the war itself, but also how they analysed the tensions already in the early sixties. Ugwu’s class, the lower classes, the poor, and sick (his mother falls ill), shine a light upon the importance of tradition (using healers, the so called ”dibia”). The more modern, western-influenced views come from the family, especially Olanna, and to some extent the businesswoman Kainene. In this manner, Adichie creates a polyphonic take on the story – which I believe indeed strengthens the reading experience since the reader gets a feeling of getting the whole picture without being lectured.

Adichie writes in a style that is easy to follow, although her use of English sometimes is a bit advanced for a non-native speaker. However, she is no Dickens, and chooses the phrases carefully – the hard words are used really well, with the aim of perhaps emphasising which passages in the novel to pay extra attention to. She does this brilliantly, I must add. The historical account of the story is changed marginally, as she has changed a few events in the timeline, but the use of semi-realism makes it less evident. She even includes the Swedish pilot Carl Gustaf von Rosen, who actually, in his late 60s, flew nine small aeroplanes into Biafra and used them to drop bombs on Nigerian aircrafts on the ground around Port Harcourt (if I remember correctly). She praises him, actually, in the very brief encounter that the reader has with this remarkable Swede (who in reality was as criticised as loved, because some said he prolonged the conflict by helping the weaker side fend off the invaders).

This is the perfect novel for anybody interested in a good love-war story, carefully weaved together with history, politics, classes, etc., because this book is an excellent endeavour in trying to convey what people feel during war, what happens when families are split apart, and your closest friends and relatives are killed, massacred. Adichie does not shy away from depicting the most horrifying images, such as a young girl’s cut-off head in a calabash, but it is not a thriller; it is a love story, a political indictment, and a historical experiment. However, it is also just a normal story about people, with all that that entails: sex, love, hope, and fear; and, Adichie does not fall into the African trap of moralising or preaching – it is a simple story of people. Perhaps it becomes simpler because she has chosen to circle around the middle-class family, which would be easier for us in the Minority World to sympathise with.

I rate this novel a 5 out of 5, the first so far in my blog, because of all that I mention above, and more – it is a modern masterpiece and a future classic. But, I will not reveal everything here (and it is too epic for me to remember it all…), so to all you out there I cannot else but recommend it; it teaches, but does not lecture – avoiding what Adichie herself always wanted to avoid, the ”show-don’t-tell” syndrome.

And if you read too much at the moment, or whatever excuse you would ever come up with not to read Half of a Yellow Sun, it is made into a movie to premier during the spring of 2011, starring one of my personal favourite actresses, Thandie Newton (another brilliantly charismatic and intelligent woman whom I have also blogged about) in the role of Olanna, whom she will suit perfectly! I so look forward to watching it!

This was the only picture from the upcoming film I could find, but it is a lovely one!


One comment on “Book review ”Half of a Yellow Sun”

  1. Pingback: Five new books ordered! Theme: Doctors Without Borders « En Strålande Utsikt

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