Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Last week, I posted a review of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2013. Seven years earlier, Adichie wrote Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel set in the 1960s during the Biafran war. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of civil war in Nigeria. Adichie’s novel portrays the experiences of survivors and, through its powerful words, urges the world not to forget the tragic events that led to the surrender of Biafra. 

What’s it about?

Ugwu is a houseboy for a revolutionary university professor named Odenigbo. His beautiful mistress, Olanna has left behind a life of privilege in Lagos to be with him (much to the disdain of Odenigbo’s mother). Olanna’s twin, Kainene, is unlike her in every way. Her partner, Richard, is a nervous and impotent Englishman, besotted with Kainene and wedded to Biafra. 

Split into parts, moving between past and present, this novel depicts the devastation and violence experienced in Nigeria from the different perspectives of its five central characters.  

The Republic of Biafra was made up of states in the Eastern region of Nigeria. Biafra’s declaration of independence from Nigeria was followed by a war that cost over a million lives through violence, starvation and disease. After three years of fighting and suffering, Biafra surrendered in 1970. It is this conflict (and its impact on civilian life) that forms the setting for Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun. 

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani writes

For most Nigerians, the war over the breakaway state of Biafra is generally regarded as an unfortunate episode best forgotten, but for the Igbo people who fought for secession, it remains a life-defining event.

It is through the eyes of Ugwu, Olanna, Odenigbo, Kainene and Richard that we see how a war like this defines the lives of those who survived and the generations who follow them. 

My thoughts

Not only did Adichie research the history of the Biafran war, she also drew her characters and scenes from the accounts of survivors. Gut churning descriptions of a mother carrying her daughters remains, of a young man whose body keeps running after decapitation and a child starving in a hastily built camp all come from living memory. In this novel, the human impact of war is centre focus and the political context is alluded to by the characters whose lives are shaped by this struggle for independence. While there are a lot of graphic moments, the violence isn’t gratuitous – rather, it demonstrates a stark reality.

To me, this book has two main themes: family and war. The two interconnect, meld and weave together continually throughout – there is infighting between two warring sisters, the joining of fractured lovers and a resilient urge for love to survive amid the chaos. Ollana and Kainene share one of the most compelling sisterly relationships I’ve ever read – they’re united by the strongest biological bond but they each have a unique capacity to cause the other real pain. It seems to me that the events of this horrifying war which aims to tear apart Biafra is a catalyst for the sisters’ reunification. Past betrayals, carnal instincts and bitter mistakes lose their power as the concept of family takes on greater significance than ever. 

Adichie presents a story that is thorough and complex—spanning the politics of race, gender, colonialism, culture, corruption, nationhood, and the fragility of human relationships—while also highlighting the international, historical context of the setting, as seen through references to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and the Cold War.

Cynthia Alexandre-Brutus 

The civil war in Nigeria took place ten years after the country’s independence from the British empire. Yet, its roots are inextricable from British colonialism which carved artificial boundaries, provoked ethnic tensions and manipulated political systems for many years. 

Odenigbo explains 

I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.

And so the white man is also a figure in this novel. In particular, Kainene’s lover Richard Churchill, an awkward English expatriate and journalist who is attempting to write a history of Nigeria. He is desperate to adopt the cause and become a true Biafran. Despite his hunger for Kainene, he battles with physical impotence. Like his attempts to become one with Kainene, he knows he cannot truly become one with Biafra either.   

Throughout, we get excerpts from a history book that one of the characters is writing – presumed at first to be Richard. A poignant passage reflects on the history of the civil war conflict in Nigeria:

The tribes of the North and the South…did not massacre in this manner. If this is hatred, then it is very young. It has been caused, simply, by the informal divide-and-rule policies of the British colonial exercise.

The writing, rewriting and deliberate overwriting of history is a vital part of Adichie’s mission – to bring us a story from the people who lived this historic moment and whose voices mustn’t be diminished or swept away with the passing of time. It’s also vitally important to consider who is speaking on behalf of Biafra. This history is not Richard’s to tell.

The final theme that struck me was forgiveness. The characters who are genuinely bound by love and family have a remarkable propensity to forgive each other. Forgiveness and acceptance prevails when everything else seems to fall apart. 

My summary

Half of a Yellow Sun gives readers an education, not solely in the factual or political nuances of the civil war, but in the meaning of colonialism and the cost of independence on a human level. 

As Sam Jordison writes

Wikipedia can tell me that “almost two million Biafran civilians died from starvation” during the war, but it’s Half of a Yellow Sun that shows me what that really means.

It’s no surprise to me that this book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction award – it’s a tribute to the memory of those lost and a recognition of those who survived. 

Other reading:

Buried for 50 years: Britain’s shameful role in the Biafran war

Biafra 50 years on: A grandmother’s perspective on the war

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