In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. When the shocking horror of the war engulfs them, their loyalties are severely tested as they are pulled apart and thrown together in ways that none of them imagined…
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a novel that captivates and rips your heart to shreds. Repeatedly. The narrative is split between two times, the early sixties, right after Nigeria won independence, and the outbreak of the Nigeria-Biafra War in the late sixties.
In the first and third sections of the novel, the early sixties, we are invited to explore middle class Nigeria. Ugwu, moving to Nsukka from a small village to become a houseboy, marvels at the plentiful food in his new boss, Odenigbo’s home. He listens in on the political debates Odenigbo and his university colleagues have every night over the dinner he painstakingly cooked. He is intrigued by London university educated Olanna, who has moved from Lagos to be with Odenigbo.
Olanna moves to Nsukka because she is bored of her life with her parents. She can no longer take being thrust in the path of prominent – and single – political figures and ignored by her twin sister, Kainene, with whom she was once close. In Odenigbo she sees her intellectual equal, and is drawn to his revolutionary beliefs.
Richard is a rich white boy from London who desperately wants to write the great African novel. He is disgusted by his racist peers and their reductive views of the Nigerian people, but ignorant of the problems inherent in his mining of Igbo culture for story ideas.
In the second and final sections of Half of a Yellow Sun we watch the war dismantle their lives. It is a novel that studies what war does to a person. Nsukka, where Olanna and Odenigbo live, is one of the first towns to fall at the beginning of the civil war. Their need to escape arrives suddenly, so they are not able to take most of their belongings with them. Their books, the symbol of their education and their concerns up until that point are left behind to be destroyed by Nigerian soldiers.
In the times before the war, Adichie pauses over long descriptions of food. Ugwu cultivated his own herbs to make Odenigbo’s food tastier. He cooked rice to Olanna’s exact specifications. When Odenigbo’s mother visited she took over the kitchen, not trusting anyone but herself to properly sustain her son. Harrison, Richard’s home help, is proud to present his idea of British cooking, and ridicules those who can’t do it – while they do the same to him for his obsession. When the war comes, it’s all stripped away. One of the war tactics used by the Nigerians to regain Biafra was to block aid from reaching the Biafran people. The prices of things like salt and milk soared. Olanna is forced to queue at relief centres that are forever running out of food. Alcohol is no longer a dinner time companion so much as a numbing medicine against the pain, violence and uncertainty. Harrison starts using beetroot (the British food he was so obsessed with) to fake injuries so he can travel without being conscripted into the untrained Biafran army.
Adichie also uses the parallel timelines to ask who should be telling Africa’s stories. Before the war, Richard is constantly failing to start his novel. He goes on about his obsession with Igbo art – as if the existence of artists in Africa is surprising to him – and begs Ugwu to take him to a ceremony in his village to look for story ideas. His novels never get very far. He goes through various different titles and approaches to the story, convinced that if he assimilates into Igbo culture enough then the perfect narrative will come to him. It is only toward the end of the war, after he proposes a novel called ‘The World Was Silent While We Died’ that Kainene finally points out that which should have been obvious from the beginning: Richard was not a part of that ‘we’. When your government can pull you out as soon as you wish it and the soldiers are never coming for you, present or not, it is not your war. While everyone else is trapped by the war, Richard is ultimately choosing to remain in it.
Through a beautiful twist that comes out of a lot of horror, Adichie makes the political point that Nigerian people should be the storytellers of their country.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a difficult novel. It doesn’t give you what you want – I wanted to scream when I realised the page I had turned was the last – but it gives you something else. In choosing authenticity over closure, Adichie has created a story that will be stuck in my head for a long time.