There has never been a better time to read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Not only because it has recently been hailed as:
A benchmark for excellence in fiction writing
by the Baileys prize judges as they crowned it the ‘best of the best’ of the past decade’s winners. Not only if – like this reader – you were woefully ignorant of the Biafran war, its causes and consequences and your own government’s underhand behaviour throughout the period covered by the novel. Instead, read it because it really is an enlightening tale, far from being a dry history lesson, instead packed with vivid, memorable characters who it is difficult to step away from every evening when it becomes time to put down the book.
Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene couldn’t be more different in their approach to life after graduation: Kainene dryly amused by her work in their father’s businesses while Olanna heads off to an unfashionable university in a outlying town to be with her boyfriend Odenigbo (who Kainene dismisses as ‘the revolutionary’). Events leading up to the outbreak of war between Nigeria and Biafra conspire to drive the sisters apart and it is not immediately clear that they will be able to resolve their differences amid the chaos. The stories are also narrated in part by Richard, Kainene’s British boyfriend, who is attempting to write a novel inspired by Igbo-Ukwu art and Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, whose adolescence, education and journey to maturity are interrupted by the fighting.
This is a novel of bold ambition, not only in telling the stories of the war as Adichie heard them from her parents, but in dealing with the themes that engaged and challenged people through the 1960s. Olanna and Odenigbo are both academics, hosting colleagues and visitors at their home each night for lively, wide-ranging and drunken debates on the future of post-colonial Africa. Kainene and Olanna are both modern girls, keen to have careers and not be as dependent on their men as their mother perhaps is. Meanwhile fine distinctions abound – between wealthy Olanna (who after fleeing finds herself missing her tablecloths) and her aunt’s more down-to-earth family, the differences between the sophisticated city dwellers and the superstitions of village life, Richard’s attempts to distinguish himself from the other Westerners – which are often missed when the ill-informed speak of ‘Africa’ as one mass.
Although set in a different continent and era, it is difficult to escape the thought that not much has changed, as Olanna and Odenigbo are displaced from one home to another and another, each one more precarious until they arrive at a refugee centre. Initially, as the ‘police action’ begins and rumours swirl, they are so convinced that the situation can be resolved that it is not until they hear the sound of shelling outside that they finally decide leave their home. It is such an unplanned flight that they leave with a half-cooked pot of soup in the back of the car and not much else. Earlier, when the twins’ parents decided to go to London it was easy for the younger relatives to dismiss it as an over-reaction. By the time it looks sensible, of course, it is too late to follow them. The targetting of civilians, forced conscription, starvation being used as a weapon, other nations lining up to support one or the other side, rapes by soldiers: Adichie’s tale is the story of the brief nationhood of Biafra, but it is not too dissimilar to what is in the news today and it seems we are no more able to prevent it and assist the victims than we were back then.