It is easy to see how Chimamanda Adichie’s 2006 novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, as well as featuring in the New York Times’s “100 Most Notable Books of the Year”. Adichie is a masterful guide who leads the reader on an emotional journey through 1960s Nigeria that is as heart-breaking as it is light-hearted and funny. Although the novel has a complex structure, Adichie never leaves her readers behind while simultaneously allowing them to lose themselves in the story.
A fictional work based on reality, this is the story of Biafra, a short-lived republic formed during the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s. Through the alternating perspectives of three very different characters, the reader follows the story of Nigeria’s struggle to establish its newly gained independence and the ensuing civil war in the late ’60s during which Biafra is formed. Woven into the overarching narrative are the individual stories and experiences of the characters whose perspectives we follow.
The reader is introduced to the story through the character of Ugwu, a village boy with little to no education who becomes a houseboy (a servant) for a Nigerian university professor named Odenigbo. The second character whose view we share is a Nigerian woman named Olanna, Odenigbo’s girlfriend. The third is a visiting British writer named Richard who is in a relationship with Olanna’s twin sister. Thus we have the lower class, less educated character with a plethora of superstitions to explain the world; the higher class, educated character who understands the modern world and is sufficiently able to make their way through it; and the foreign visitor who is still learning to understand the local ways, who sees themselves as part of – yet distanced from – the nation-wide events.
Using a close third person narrative voice, Adichie alternates the different characters’ perspectives on a chapterly basis as she leads the reader through their individual experiences of the war and their changing circumstances. Ugwu’s experiences are jaded by his supertitious beliefs but cleverly introduced to the reader so that the references are accessible even to those unfamiliar with the culture. This rural superstition is offset by the more educated, first-world knowledge of Olanna, and Richard’s curiosity and thirst for local knowledge. The reader is likely to empathise, at least in part, with one or more of Adichie’s characters, even though they may seem far removed from the culture of the reader. Adichie has a skill for making the characters seem familiar, as if they are people you know. The reader loves, listens to gossip, fights and lives as part of the family. Though the reader may have no experience of Africa, they will recognise the family bonds that join the characters together; the loyalty, support and love the characters have for one another, even when they don’t particularly like each other.
Although it could be classified as historical fiction, Half of a Yellow Sun belongs to that unfamiliar literary territory occupied by stories that seem so significant that the reader is left wondering how they ever managed to escape hearing this story before. By the end of the book, one is left with an almost unshakeable sense of discomfort that this amount of tragedy passed by unacknowledged. Nigeria is beginning to be recognised as wealthy and influential, yet their tragic struggle to get there is relatively unknown. Half of a Yellow Sun entrenches itself in the reader’s conscience, occasionally with rather graphic imagery, leaving the reader with a tangible sense of loss and shock at the end of the war. This discomfort can be either (or both) challenging and offputting for the reader but is offset by the gripping need to find out if and how the characters manage to survive.
“The world was silent when we died” is one character’s comment about the events in this book. Adichie’s fiction brings attention back to a series of events in her country’s history that should have received more recognition than it did. Through the different characters she ensures that her story touches a wide audience. The characters’ close ties to each other are recognisable from a variety of cultures, made all the stronger by the experiences shared with reader and characters alike. This book is a punch in the gut that everyone should receive.