Charlotte's Web

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Half of a Yellow Sun

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Shortly before Christmas, the charismatic Jacob Zuma won the leadership of the ANC from under the nose of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki. Where Zuma is a people’s person, educated by the university of life and a champion of the poor, Mbeki is cold, intellectual and apparently incapable of showing compassion to those who suffer. Zuma is also a Zulu, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, while Mbeki is Xhosa – the same tribe as Nelson Mandela. Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006, but is due to stand trial for corruption later this year. It has not taken South Africa’s political analysts long to begin imagining the worst case scenarios should the popular ANC leader be found guilty. Taken alongside the violent protests against Kenya’s apparently rigged elections, it is clear that in Africa tribal loyalties are not to be taken lightly.

How strange then, to have this so acutely in mind as I read Chimimanda’s Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel takes a group of characters through the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70, where after a short-lived coup by Igbo officers in the Nigerian army, Igbo people living in the north of Nigeria were sought out and massacred. The Igbo responded by declaring their southern part of the country an independent state, which they called Biafra. Blockaded and bombed, they were eventually overpowered and Biafra was returned to Nigeria. However, the Nigerians’ most powerful weapon against the Biafrans was starvation, and the enduring image of that war is of tiny children, with the sticklike limbs and severely bloated bellies that denote kwashiorkor, or malnutrition.

While Adichie admits in the author interview at the back of my copy of the book that she changed certain small details, she remains true to the central events of the time. In this way, Half of a Yellow Sun was a history lesson for me – it brought to life a war that was happening as I was conceived and born, a war that for me was more the haunting eyes of starvation than the attempts of a people to create their own nation. But it is so much more than the dry bones of history. Adichie fleshes out her story with a set of characters as different from each other as their human need to survive is the same.

The story is largely seen through the eyes of three people. There is Ugwu, the houseboy brought in from the country to tend to the needs of the professor Odenigbo. Ugwu is about thirteen (no-one is really sure) and has passed the equivalent of Grade Four, but shows such a natural intelligence in his tasks that the professor allows him to continue his education. While this education happens largely offstage, Ugwu’s growing understanding of the world around him, of people, his compassion and love for the family that he serves clearly indicates his progression. Late in the novel, he joins his mistress Olanna in teaching children in the refugee camp where the family work – a development that shows he is no longer servile but a beloved equal.

Olanna, daughter of a chief, is the novel’s second main protagonist. She disdains the wealth and rarefied social life her parents offer her to live in the provincial town of Nsukka with her “revolutionary lover” Odenigbo and teach in the university there. She swallows her pride to adopt Odenigbo’s love-child, Baby, to whom she and Ugwu both become devoted slaves. While she adores her husband, she watches with a distaste that is hard to contain as his revolutionary fervour becomes fervour for alcohol. Odenigbo, it seems, is one of those hardline theorists whose theories drift away like gunpowder after the first shots are fired. It was not that she wanted him to go to war to prove his love for her, but that the war, and Biafra’s losing of it, took away from him the strength and manliness that in peacetime he appeared to possess.

The third protagonist is the Englishman, Richard, who drifts to Nigeria in the guise of being a writer. He very soon becomes enamoured of Olanna’s powerful and enigmatic sister Kainene, and shifts away from the superficial expat world of parties, cocktails and sexual favours to be her live-in lover. They never marry, but he turns to calling her his wife. Richard loves the Igbo, their culture and customs, and during the war is used by the army as a one-man propaganda machine. He is the outsider dying to be the insider, and he proves his devotion by staying the course of the war instead running away with the other expats. He speaks the language of the Igbo and speaks for the Igbo as a writer.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a hard book to read in that the descriptions of suffering are acute and painful. Rape – a ghastly tool of war – is also present, as are starvation, tragedy and deprivation. But Adichie’s characters are redemptive as they survive and cope, by helping others and receiving help from those more fortunate than themselves. Olanna and Kainene start the book disengaged from each other, become estranged during the course of the story and then are bound together once again in twinship and kinship. They build around themselves a small tribe of husbands, children and servants, as well the desperately ill and dying for whom they care in the refugee camp. I hope I’m not misrepresenting the book: while the subject matter is tough and Adichie does not flinch from addressing it, it is thread through with a sly and teasing humour. (At one point, Kainene says of Harrison, her houseboy, who cooks up some lizards for the family: ‘”You’d think it was roast beef, the way he’s going on about it.”‘)

Adichie is a powerful writer. Her prose never flags; it is glittering and strong. Here is a passage where Alice, a neighbour, discovers that her family have all been killed in her hometown:

She was strengthened, emboldened, by the madness of grief and she fought off everyone who tried to hold her. She rolled on the ground with such force that the stones cut her skin in tiny red gashes. The neighbours said oh and shook their heads. Odenigbo came out of the room then and went over and picked Alice up and held her, and she stayed still and began to weep, her head resting on his shoulder. Olanna watched them. There was a familiar melding to the curve of Odenigbo’s arms around Alice. He held her with the ease of someone who had held her before.

There are two things happening here. Firstly, the tiny gashes on Alice’s skin echo the machete wounds which Olanna witnesses when members of her family are murdered in the north at the beginning of the novel. The horror of war is underscored once again for Olanna, while simultaneously she realises that her husband has been sleeping with Alice. For Olanna, the degradation of war and the humiliation of her husband being unfaithful to her are one.

Aidichie says fiction is the soul of history, and this is what she achieves in her wonderful book: bringing humanity and soul to an African conflict that has long been relegated to the history books. She wraps and envelops you in her story, and sweeps you along inexorably to the end. I had the shivery feeling throughout that I was watching the birth of a classic, and I am delighted beyond adequate expression that Africa has produced another writer of her calibre and sensitivity. I think this book will be taught in schools and universities along with other classics from the continent such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. I hope that one day a writer with as fine an eye, as clear a voice and as great compassion will write a book about South Africa’s recent past, bringing soul and humanity to my country’s history.

This is my first book of 2008. I have no doubt that at the end of this year, it will be one of my favourites.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

20 thoughts on “Half of a Yellow Sun

  1. That sounds like an amazing book. I will put it, along with the Lessing and Coetzee titles, on my “want to read” list. I am woefully under-read in African literature.

  2. Wow! Fabulous review, Charlotte! I’m very impressed by this!

  3. How strange, I read this over Christmas too, and also thought it was a great book. I ended up staying up til about 2am on Christmas Eve finishing it off (partly because I wanted to read something more cheerful at Christmas time!) The background understanding brought by the book started ringing alarm bells for me when I heard about tribal tensions in Kenya. I know you can’t take everything you read in this type of novel too literally, and start believing you know about the history, but reading a book is a type of seeing through someone else’s eyes, and that means more for me than knowing all the dates and exact events.

  4. This sounds like a very powerful book, and a good recommendation along with the other three. Africa was so beautiful and so brutal when I was there. It is such a disturbing paradox that the most loving and kind communities I’ve ever experienced have to live with this sort of instability and violence. You write beautifully about Africa Charlotte–you could write that book.

  5. This book is building gradually. I first saw a review of it that made me think of reading it 18 months ago and now two people I know are reading it at the moment, and highly recommending it. I’ve been a bit put off by the violence, but on the strength of this review I’ll have to read it.

  6. An excellent review of a very powerful bok. I read this book last year and was very moved by it.

    I also, to my shame, thought “once again – Perfidious Albion” as so much of the problem was due to the British ignoring tribal loyalties when they divided up Nigeria – as usual from selfish motives, in this case, as so often, oil.

  7. Damn. If you are going to start doing book reviews this eloquent, my tbr list is going to go from ridiculous to out of control. Wonderful review – I’ve added it to my list!

  8. Yogamum, if you want to read some African literature, why not start with this one? Such a great place to begin …

    Litlove, it was worth all the superlatives! Wonderful to read something so steady and strong.

    Doctor/woman, it was that, the seeing and learning through someone else’s eyes, but also that the story was so powerful. Glad to hear you also enjoyed it.

    Ian, you’ve put your finger on it – the juxtaposition of kindness with a kind of horror that’s hard to imagine. And thanks for your lovely comment! Maybe I will write such a book one day.

    Ms Penguin, the horror of the book is more in the gradual starvation of the Igbo people rather than brutal violence. The pockets of description about the conflict itself are milder than we are used to in news reports and movies such as Hotel Ruwanda.

    Elaine, glad to hear of another Adichie convert. And I think you’re right that colonialism had a lot to answer for in Nigeria, as it did all over Africa.

  9. Courtney, you snuck in there while I was typing! Glad to hear this is going on your tbr pile, and looking forward to hearing what you have to say once you have read it.

  10. It’s January 7th and you’ve finished the first book this year already, you are awesome! I’m still just staring at my bookshelf trying to decide what to read.

  11. It’s January 7th and you are finished with the first book of the year? You are awesome. I’m still staring at my bookshelf trying to decide what to read. Great review.

    Funny WordPress just scolded me for trying to post my comment too fast. I don’t think I’ve ever be scolded by a site before.

  12. I’m going to have to run and get this one. You keep writing about books in a way that obliges me to go out and buy them!

  13. Great review, Charlotte. Very moving.

    We have Things Fall Apart but I´ve never read it. You have motivated me to do it now!

  14. Dear Charl, wow, thanks for the great review. that is going on my next amazon order.. I agree with Ian by the way..🙂

  15. I think I picked this for my favorite novel for my 2007 year-end thingy. I’m listening to Purple Hibiscus on audiotape right now, and I already know I’ll want to read it for real, and soon.

  16. i had to skip this review until i’d finished the book! well summarised.

    it’s been ages since i read “things fall apart”… now i have an urge to go back and re-read it.

  17. Wonderful review, Charlotte. I’m so glad you loved this book – I certainly did. And as you say, there was this entire conflict that we never heard a word about at school, while we knew all the ins and outs of Spanish and German unification. Surreal. I love her style of writing – so much so that I read Purple Hibiscus abotu a month later. Yellow Sun was very hard to read in places and with the Kenyan crisis in full swing, very topical. My second-to-last book was Mukiwa, a memoir by Peter Godwin. If you haven’t yet, please please put it on your reading list. Again, not easy reading but fantastic to see the stories of Africa finally being told, from all perspectives. My most recent book was Spud – about a boy starting high school in a private school in the Natal midlands in 1990. It’s hilarious – an African Adrian Mole🙂

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  19. I think the book was good reading. I also think it was too long. This is a constant complaint of mine. The book could have used better editing. Adichie develops her main characters with rtremendous sensitivity. Ugwu stands out in my mind as the outstanding one., but Olanna, Odenigbo, and Richard are well done. I think that Adiche short changed Richard a little,I respected the choices he made, although I had difficulty accepting the relationship with Kainene. Not important.

    I recall the Biafra war vividly. The United Stataes played an unsavory role as sadly it has done in so many situations where people are struggling with heir freedom. Many progressive organizations fought for aid to stop the starvation in Biafra. Many publications like the Nation tried to gain support. Unfortunately since WW11 Us has shown up on the wrong side, as in Iraq today.

    This book is important because ir reveals the evils of war, the inhumanity of man to man. The sttrength of the book likes in its success of the portrayal of the war , its history and its progression to defeat.

    The sexual scenes in the book did not add stature to the story, perhaps it will sell a few more books. I doubt it. I reccommend the book, its’ strengths are mer.. Adiche was a thorough researcher and a good storyteller.

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