Posted on August 16, 2015
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five ordinary people through a decade of Nigerian history. After receiving independent federation rule in 1960 the country was thrown into civil war in the late sixties when Biafra, a state in Eastern Nigeria, was granted secession.
The characters are introduced during a time of peace and plenty. Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, educated and wealthy, live very different lives. Olanna is introduced as kind and thoughtful as she reassures an elderly lady at the airport that the plane carrying her son will stop on the runway. Olanna gives up her luxurious lifestyle in Lagos to live with her lecturer lover, Odenigbo. Kainene, strong, wilful and less beautiful than her twin, helps their father to run the family business and becomes involved with an Englishman, Richard, who has a fascination for Igbo art.
Odenigbo, a university lecturer in Nsukka, entertains friends where food and alcohol flow and lively intellectual debates ensue. His strong political views cause Kainene to refer to him as Olanna’s ‘revolutionary lover’. Ugwu is Odenigbo’s thirteen year old houseboy who loves to cook for Master and his guests while absorbing fragments of their lively discussions.
Biafra’s secession in 1967 brings a Nigerian blockade and eventually war; the mostly Muslim dominated north against the Igbo population in the south. The world, with the exception of Tanzania, refuses to recognise the State of Biafra.
The novel moves successfully between the early sixties and the late sixties to provide a contrast between the indulgent lifestyle of peace time and the famine and hardships that inevitably come with war. The early imagery of Ugwu’s pepper soup and spicy jollof rice reinforce the horrors of eating roasted bush rats to stave off starvation.
As the war progresses, Odenigbo, Olanna and daughter Baby have to leave their home in Nsukku. Their descent into poverty forces them to live in a single room of squalor, join food queues for any scraps they are able to receive and the need to hide in air raid shelters, which they share with an assortment of small creatures. Relationships that were easy when life was good are put under enormous strain when food is scarce and the people they love are brutally murdered. Kainene has a different experience of the war as she sets up and organises refugee camps for all of those forced from their homes. Her life with Richard is stable and he tries hard to integrate and become accepted by the Igbo people. Ugwu faces challenges as he explores the natural inquisitive passions of a teenage boy.
Half of a Yellow Sun is named after the emblem for Biafra, worn on the sleeves of soldiers fighting the war. This three year war has been consigned to distant memory for most of the world and the word Biafra synonymous with starving, large bellied children in Africa.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has done an excellent job of bringing the war back to the attention of the world whilst telling a beautifully written story. The account of history, which members of her family experienced, is related through these five wonderful characters in a moving and empathetic manner. She has captured the human condition well: during times of suffering some find a deep inner strength whereas others flounder and surrender, unable to cope. The changes in each of the characters also reinforce that although we often have little control over external circumstances we do have a choice in our personal response to them. An inspirational read