Book: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published: Farafina, Lagos 2006
Reviewer: Robert E. Gribbin
I spent the last three months in Nigeria. It was indeed a fascinating place. Under new President Yar'Adua it was full of energy and the expectation that problems can be solved and that the nation can look forward to a brighter, more prosperous future. Nigeria today has moved far beyond the passions of the 1967-70 Biafran civil war, yet some of the issues of disenfranchisement and tribalism remain as troublesome impediments to true national unity. Chimamanda Adichie's novel, that all of Nigeria is reading, is a haunting reminder of the enmity of the war, the arrogance, the violence and the hardship that was visited upon the Igbo people.
The title of the novel evokes the half of a yellow sun that was the central emblem on the Biafran flag. The sun also figured on the uniforms of Biafran soldiers. The half sun initially is symbolically seen as a rising sun representing the hopes and expectations of the new state. However, as the story progresses and Biafra descends into a besieged hell of poverty, starvation and collapse, the sun is clearly setting. Dreams are over and lives are irreparably changed.
The story focuses on a rich Igbo family, especially twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, whose personalities are quite different. Tracking them and their various relationships to family, lovers and friends provides background for the war and a soap operatic setting for the plot that finally gathers together and moves forward seriously to delve into what happens when the normal stresses of living are overwhelmed by senseless violence. Much of the novel is viewed through the perspective of Igwu, a young naive houseboy called to service in the home of Professor Odengigbo, a fervent believer in the Biafran cause, who becomes Olanna's husband. Although Igwu does not understand his social superiors, he carefully observes them and gets to love them (and they him). Several delightful passages in the novel reflect Igwu's village naivete when he puzzles about middle class life style.
Hanging over the domesticity of Odengibo and Olanna's university household in Igbo territory were the tribal politics of Nigeria in the sixties. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Balewa (a northerner) in 1966 by Igbo officers, a series of pogroms and massacres were visited upon Igbo migrants in northern Nigeria. Thousands died and tens of thousands retreated to the Igbo heartland. Another coup d'etat brought northern officers to power. Rejecting that change, Igbo nationalists declared Biafra independent. The Federal Government responded by beginning a "police action" that morphed into civil war.
Although it only presents the Igbo perspective, this book is not about the politics of the war. Rather, it is about people - rich, middle class and peasant alike - all of whom become victims of forces beyond their control. Part of the tragedy of the Biafran civil war was the absolute conviction by the Igbo people, as represented by characters in the novel, that their destiny was to be free and independent. Consequently, they stoically accepted the enormous hardship visited upon them as Biafra was battered and starved into submission. This is that story: the pride, the courage, the resourcefulness and the initiative as folks coped with the collapse of their lives, with death, disease, starvation, betrayal and ultimately, defeat.
The central characters of the novel fill out nicely as the story progresses. They become real as they struggle with circumstances and against the doom that the reader knows lies ahead. Dramatically told, Chimamanda Adichie has written a compelling narrative of human resilience in the face of tragedy.