Hmm, it seems like the only person writing reviews for my blog these days is my sister Brogan! Here’s another one for you while I’m away...
I find myself not wanting to say anything critical about Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because it’s so good, and not only is it a good book, but it’s also an important one. The story is set in Nigeria in the sixties and alternates between “the early sixties” and “the late sixties.” It begins by introducing the main characters, Olanna and Kainene, middle-class twin sisters, Olanna with a revolutionary bent and Kainene with a more business orientation. Olanna has a lover, Odenigbo, who is a university professor; Kainene’s lover is a white man from England, one of the few Westerners who has come to Nigeria not to pillage the country but to try to understand it (he is interested in the historical art of the area). Then there’s Ugwu, Olanna and Odenigbo’s household servant, a poor boy from an outlying village who is trying to make his way (preferably up) in the world.
Enter civil war.
The power of this book for me was twofold: one, it totally transported me to another world, a world of jollof rice, houseboys, and multiple languages and ethnic groups (Igbo, Yoruba, English, Fulani and a number of others); and two, despite their obvious differences at the outset, I saw how similar middle-class Nigerian life could be to middle-class North American life, and therefore as I read about the anomie of war I could imagine and dread my own life being so transformed. This is the greatest strength of Half of a Yellow Sun: it makes you care about people who live half a world away, people whose lives are entwined in our own, given that so many resources that support our middle-class lifestyle come from Africa.
I cared deeply about the characters, who are strong, uncompromising and interesting. When Olanna described being afraid of who would die next, I can only say that I shared her fear.
Knowing that this novel is based on actual events made me want to learn more about the history of Nigeria and the struggle for an independent Biafra. (Adichie gives free reign to a number of political discussions in the book, but since she’s faithful to actual conversations, people do not reference their current political situation with the in-depth background information that would have been helpful to someone like me, who knew nothing about the political history of the area and had only a sketchy knowledge of international politics at that time.)
One thing this book made clear was that in such wars, it is not the side with the most legitimacy that wins, or the side with the deepest conviction among its supporters—it is rather the side with the backing of Western powers (and therefore access to weapons), a support that can depend on the vagaries of international relations at the time. But also, that in war there is no “good side,” and the tools of war are brutality on both sides. The war in Nigeria against secessionist Biafra was the first conflict in which mass starvation was deliberately used as a weapon of war (against the Biafrans).
My questions or slight detractions about the book are more on the personal, character level. For instance, one of the women, Kainene, is said to be ugly and is frequently compared to her beautiful sister (by other characters) because they are twins. As a reader, I cared about Kainene’s ugliness, about how this single fact of her life (which she could do nothing about) affected her and how she reacted to it with wryness and sarcasm. However, I also didn’t quite understand it—Adichie writes of “beautiful” and “ugly” as if they are absolute and universal, as objective as describing one person’s eyes as brown and another’s as blue. But beauty is not an objective quality so I found myself wondering what was ugly about Kainene? Adichie only ever describes this ugliness in the vaguest of terms, using words such as “androgynous” and “skinny”—she gives us no details. (She gives no details as to the beautiful woman’s looks either but somehow this mattered less.) Also, both Western and Nigerian men find Kainene unattractive, which, given that standards of beauty are culturally specific, made me wonder further: what is it about this woman’s appearance that so sets her apart? Because Adichie doesn’t explore these details, it seemed to me that she used Kainene’s ugliness as a device and in that way I felt the telling wasn’t compassionate. Casting Kainene as ugly seemed like an idea imposed on the character rather than an organic part of her reality, which I hope would have led to a more sensitive and complete exploration of that reality.
Overall, Half of a Yellow Sun is a phenomenal book. Part love story, part examination of war, it doesn’t evade subtleties (it’s not because you are surrounded by shelling that you know for sure whether you’ve chosen the right lover), nor does it turn away from looking at the crassness of humanity at its worst—which is war—and how ordinary people live their lives in the midst of it.
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