Half of a Yellow Sun
Genre: Literary Fiction
Review in a word: Compelling
“Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair.”
Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of the Biafran War in Nigeria, as seen through the eyes of Ugwu, a young servant from a poor family; Odenigbo, Ugwu’s master and a wealthy university professor; Olanna, Odenigbo’s girlfriend; and Richard, a Brit studying in Nigeria and the boyfriend of Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene.
Without previous knowledge of the Biafran War, it is difficult in some instances to understand what’s going on. Basically, in order to gain independence from Britain, the Southern part of Nigeria, dominated by the Igbo and Yoruba tribes, was forced to be part of Nigeria, with the Northern area having the majority of the power. The Igbo and Yoruba were primarily Christian and heavily influenced by Western culture and education, while the Northern tribes were Islamic and eschewed Western influence. Once independent from Britain, the Igbo and Yoruba tried to split from Nigeria to create Biafra. Thus, the Biafran War—a terrible time of military coups, starvation, roadside bombings, and chaos. The Biafrans were essentially alone during this time; no other countries came to their aid. Ultimately, the Biafrans were defeated.
In this novel, the characters are firmly planted on the Biafran side of the war, but Adichie explores the way war brings out the worst in all of us—no matter what side you’re on.
I loved reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, so I was looking forward to reading Adichie’s work. But I wasn’t prepared for it. Like Olanna when she sees her aunt, uncle, and little cousins dead, I had a hard time believing some of this truly happened. Biafra is where the haunting images of starving children come from.
But the story isn’t all bad. The tension and loyalty between Olanna and Kainene is bittersweet; we all know what it’s like to love someone, and even be on the same “side,” but have different ways of handling situations. Olanna is the heroine; through being forced to move and dealing with disease and famine, hers is the voice that keeps everyone sane. Wherever they are forced to go, Olanna cares for the community, teaches the children, does her best to find food. She has Western manners and struggles to overcome even her own politeness in order to do what is necessary for them to survive. But Olanna is determined not to be a helpless civilian:
The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life.
Ugwu’s storyline was my favorite. He grows during the story, from a naive pre-teen in love with Olanna, to a loyal friend. But, like many other characters, his loyalty to Olanna is not without struggle. Part of him wants to join the Biafran army to help in the war effort, although Olanna forbids it. He ends up being conscripted anyway, and makes a name for himself as a good soldier. Basking in his comrades’ respect, he gives in to their peer pressure and takes part in a gang rape. That act haunts him, but the guilt matures him in ways nothing else could; it is a positive force that humbles and matures him.
Recommend? Yes, absolutely.
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