Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Without a doubt, this is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best work to date. While her debut, Purple Hibiscus, was engrossing, and her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, included stand-out gems, both titles pale to the exceptional Yellow Sun.
Gentle, innocent Ugwu enters the home of radical university professor Odenigbo as a houseboy, ready to learn (and eat!), eager to please. He is at first wary of but becomes quickly enthralled by his new master’s elegant lover, Olanna, the daughter of wealthy, prominent parents who have provided her every elite privilege, including a British university degree. Olanna comes to visit, and returns to stay; master, mistress, and servant eventually become four when Baby comes along, and meld into an impromptu family.
While the impassioned Olanna immerses herself in the intellectual life she shares with her “revolutionary lover,” her twin sister Kainene, a practical businesswoman, slowly builds a home with Richard, a British ex-pat wannabe writer more enthralled with his adopted country than his own roots. Inseparable when younger, Olanna and Kainene have become estranged in adulthood; their bond will be irrevocably damaged by personal betrayal, until unspeakable tragedies briefly reunite the sisters once more.
As the flawed, searching lives of Ugwu, Odenigbo and Olanna, Kainene and Richard intertwine, diverge, and overlap, their ethnic Igbo community declares independence from Nigeria and becomes the new nation of Biafra. The almost-three years of war between Biafra and Nigeria are marked by heinous acts of violence, forced migrations, deprivation and famine, brutal conscription to repopulate the depleted Biafran military, and tragedy to last generations to come.
Adichie, who was born to an Igbo family seven years after Biafra fell to Nigeria, clearly inherited her family’s experiences: she dedicates Half of a Yellow Sun (named for the demi-sunburst in the middle of the Biafran flag) to both her grandfathers who did not survive the war, and her two grandmothers who did. She adeptly alternates her chapters between “The Early Sixties” and “The Late Sixties,” as she purposefully distorts time, adding an additional layer of literary jarring to a horrifically tumultuous historic period. As the war claims millions of lives, no one is left untouched … not even the wide-eyed Ugwu who will find it nearly impossible to block out his own shocking crimes.
Immersing yourself in the almost-500 pages (or finishing nearly 19 hours of the audio version gloriously read by Robin Miles) is a surely a rewarding experience. But so effective is Adichie’s tightly controlled storytelling – terrifying yet never maudlin, inspiring but never sentimental – that turning the last page comes with a sense of bittersweet withdrawal, as if suddenly Baby’s chatter is silenced, Richard’s proud Igbo ramblings are finished, Ugwu’s wonder ceases, and Olanna’s searing pain will never ease …