Wow. You know when you read something that’s really hard hitting and epic and ambitious and feels completely authentic even though you know the characters aren’t real? That’s this book. It’s so powerful I’m not even sure where to begin.
Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of two sisters, Olanna and Kainene and their lives during the civil war in Nigeria. The fighting over land and political rule results in the short lived founding of a new nation – Biafra – and the women are caught up in the chaos that ensues. Told from both of their perspectives, plus Olanna’s servant Ugwu and Richard, Kainene’s British partner, we get to see the horrors of the war from very different perspectives.
At first, the novel is a fascinating portrayal of life in 1960’s Nigeria. Olanna and Kainene are from a privileged upper middle class family and it was really interesting to see how indigenous people with power and money were living in a post colonial society that still seemed very British. Juxtaposed to this was the extended family, who lived in villages with a far more traditional way of life. Being able to see both the lives of both the rich and the poor was really interesting, especially as I’ve read very few books about Africa in general and certainly not any from this time period. What struck me most was how oddly modern life seemed to be – Olanna and Kainene are both unmarried and living with partners, they attend university and have good jobs. That’s certainly not something that I expected to be happening in the 1960’s anywhere in the world, but especially not somewhere that I would think of today as being quite profoundly Christian.
Just as my interest in the story started to wane, civil war breaks out and suddenly, everything is thrown up in the air. What amazed me was how, for a good portion of the book, most of the characters tried to continue as normal with their daily lives. I’d never thought about war from as something that slowly creeps up on people but this book illustrates perfectly how it slowly affected little things, like your ability to travel or access to imported foods, until, one issue at a time, your life is subtly changed until it is almost unrecognizable.
As the book progresses, the horrors of war become more apparent and as the violence increases, so does the suffering of the people. Adichie doesn’t shy away from the impact of things like starvation and malnutrition on children and, although we don’t see any first hand account of front line fighting, the novel is quite graphic and shockingly sad. It is this insidiousness, the mundanity and powerlessness of the general population that is so well captured and gives the novel such extraordinary weight.
Half of a Yellow Sun also contains a book within a book – I won’t say too much but at the end I was really pleased to find out who the author was. I liked that the book ended sometime after the civil war had finished so that I got to find out what had happened to all of the characters (almost). I’d become very attached to each of the four narrative voices, despite all of them being in some way flawed so it was nice to not be left with too many questions at the end.
I don’t think that I could honestly say that I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun, but it is an amazing book and one that I would thoroughly recommend. I loved that the dominant characters were women and it was so interesting to not only learn about a completely different culture but to see it from a privileged female perspective. Yes, some parts were quite harrowing and bloody but then this is fundamentally a book set within a war zone so I think the violence is completely justified. The nearest novel that I could compare it to is Empire of the Sun – and in my book that’s high praise indeed.
Epic, ambitious, utterly absorbing and completely unique. A great history lesson about an often overlooked war.
Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #14 Read a book about war and the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #5 Read a book by a person of colour.