Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

half of a yellow sunHalf of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

Quick thoughts: One of the better civilian-themed war novels I have read. Highly recommended both for literary merit and as an accessible entry point to modern African literature.

A good number of the books I read and review are the result of book clubs or reading challenges. Sometimes I’m introduced to a hidden gem, and other times I suffer through a complete dud. The one constant that makes everything worth my while is that I am continually exposed to material that would have otherwise escaped my notice. I tend to leave entire literary avenues unexplored because I am afraid of tainting my perception by choosing the “wrong” book as my introductory point. A big reason why I’m so appreciative of my own book clubs and reading challenges is that they force me to get past that first step. In this instance, Half of a Yellow Sun gave me the kick in the pants I needed to begin my foray into African literature.

For those who don’t necessarily follow this blog, I actually prefaced my reading of this book with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. That was a smart move on many levels for me. Achebe is widely regarded as the first example of modern African literature; Adichie is commonly referred to as his literary daughter. BothThings Fall Apart and Half of a Yellow Sun deal with pivotal points in Nigerian history (the introduction of colonialism and the Biafran war, respectively), and I appreciated how the issues raised by Achebe’s book helped to give a wider perspective to this novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictional retelling of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War (1967-1970) through the eyes of a small handful of characters. The particular selection of these characters was impressive, as they represented a broad cross-cut of experience: a houseboy raised in the tribal swamps of the Nigerian Delta; twin daughters of an African shipping magnate; a radical university professor; and a white writer whose love causes him to become entwined in the Biafran struggle.

The plot becomes quite harrowing, as many atrocities were committed on both sides in this gruesome war. It’s certainly not a read for the faint of heart. What makes this particular novel worth reading, though, is that it refuses to become a jeremiad. There is weeping and wailing, but the intent is not bitter lamentation. It unerringly remains an exploration of the human condition, and a well-balanced remembrance of an event which should not be forgotten. This is a book that cuts to the quick of human experience rather than taking the easy out of indignation and reproach.

In terms of story elements, one angle that quickly won me over was the character arc of Ugwu, the houseboy. He is introduced to us as a superstitious and naïve bumpkin with little experience of the world beyond his tiny village in the swamps of the delta. Adichie handles his character with wonderful delicacy, without ever demeaning or criticizing his outmoded cultural beliefs. His gradual development allows him to act as a cultural buffer between the modern sensibilities of the urbanites and the superstitions of his home village, providing the reader with an incredible window into what makes the hearts of the Igbo people beat.

It might sound horrible of me to admit this, but I truly think that the addition of the white Western writer (Richard) to the cast of characters was a stroke of genius by Adichie in embracing a global audience. As a white man myself, I will probably never understand what it feels like to experience racial slurs and degradation based only on the colour of my skin. What I can identify with, though, is what it would feel like to have those slurs directed at someone I love. Through Richard’s character, I experienced a swell of emotions that hit me like a sledgehammer, swaying between extremes of violent anger, stunned disbelief and impotent despair. I know that this book will stay with me whenever I think about the lack of Western attitudes toward African struggles. Adichie managed to strike a chord in me that I think shall never remain silent.

The writing is also incredibly smart. Nothing was ever spelled out, yet I never felt lost despite yawning gaps in cultural knowledge. I can also pretty much guarantee that once you find out why the book is titled Half of a Yellow Sun, the reason will be burned in your memory forever. And despite my complete ignorance of the relevant historical events, the simplicity of story and complexity of character made everything work for me on multiple levels. Many of the events recounted in the novel also have a ring of truth that could only have come from personal experience. Adichie was born well after this war ended, but you can tell that she is surrounded by living memory. These ingredients make for a compelling reading experience that remains highly accessible to an outsider such as myself. Highly recommended.