A riveting account of forgotten humanity in times of war.
Renowned author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought us Nigerian and feminism-inspired prose in her bestselling works “Americanah” and “We Should All Be Feminists,” but it’s perhaps her second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” that none of us were ready for. In this 2006 novel, Adichie splits up the tragic history of the three-year Biafran War into the poignant stories of three main characters: Ugwu, the adolescent houseboy of revolutionary professor Odenigbo; Olanna, the mistress of the professor; and Richard, an Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene.
While each chapter is from the perspective of one of these three people, the story as a whole revolves around the lives of Olanna and Kainene, who belong to the upper class of Igbo culture. The two lead very different lives, even down to whom they are romantically involved with, but it’s the rumors and then eventuality of the Biafran war that bring the two sisters to a more somber reality. Adichie does a wonderful job of combining the superficial moments of Olanna and Kainene’s different love lives with the unadulterated realness of political unrest.
For those unfamiliar with the history of Nigerian independence and the Igbo people, this novel can be difficult to digest at times, but Adichie’s mission with this story is not to educate the ignorant. Yes, the book does take place during 1960s Nigeria — a time when unrest, violence, and war raged across the country – but this is not a war novel. Even the novel’s title, which references the Biafran flag — designed with half of a rising sun in the middle — evokes hope and unity, rather than fear and despair. Adichie sets out to tell stories of love, family loyalty, betrayal and forgiveness in the setting of this tumultuous political time in Nigerian history, and by extension, exposes those who were unaware at the start of the novel to a moment in history that is otherwise underrepresented.
Where the pace and the writing slows, Adichie is quick to counter with yet another horrifying wartime tragedy to pull back the reader. It almost seems that she is reminding her readers that she is writing about the ordinary lives of characters who did not live in an ordinary time. What makes her scenes of wartime havoc so memorable is how unexpectedly they come up. At one point, Adichie describes a moment on a train in which a refugee heading north is carrying her daughter’s severed head in a bowl ... braids still intact. This is just one instance where it makes the reader want to re-read the scene to fully digest what just happened. It’s the small, minute details of this narrative where Adichie’s prose really thrives and comes off the page.
In a way, we can take this story and apply it to any country, any time or place with conflict and tragedy at the center of it, and see that the raw humanity that Adichie paints in her novel is prevalent without fail. At its core, “Half of a Yellow Sun” is a beautifully intimate story about people that very much could have been real at this time, and any reader would benefit from the rich history, love and hope among ruins that can be found on the pages of this book.
Madison Breaux ‘19 is a senior magazine student at Syracuse University.