Book review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A beautiful, moving and educational book about lives transformed by war

From a book about one civil war to another – this beautiful novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is about a country and conflict I knew far less about.

It follows several Nigerian characters through the ’60s, into a period of civil war and the creation of the Biafran state. I am ashamed to say I was completely ignorant of Biafra and all I could recall of the Nigerian civil war was Don McCullin’s photos of the starving woman and children displayed at the Tate last year. Adichie makes a point in the book that, while you may have seen shocking images like these in the paper, few will have actually thought of their stories. This novel tells those stories.

If you’ve ever read the World War One novel Birdsong, this novel uses a similar device of introducing you to the characters before the war. It’s a very effective way of developing a reader relationship with characters, showing the life that exists before war, and introducing the reader to a culture that is in all likely alien to them. The novel has interesting and contrasting perspectives – a highly-educated, upper middle class Nigerian woman, a village boy who goes to work for a professor, and an Englishman trying to be accepted by his new home.

The lives of the characters in Nigeria that we are shown before the civil war are probably different to what white European and American audiences would expect. I’ve since watched a brilliant Ted Talk Adichie gave in 2009 where she points out that the only African stories foreign audiences hear are of poverty and failed states. Half of a Yellow Sun provides a very different perspective – a thriving, intellectual, wealthy University community in Nsukka – and an entanglement of personal ambitions, desires, and anxieties, that are no different to those found anywhere else in the world. Then the war comes.

In this novel, war is not a drama that defines the character’s lives, it is what disrupts them. War robs them of control over their own lives. You learn a lot about the war, which is on the surface is a conflict between two ethnic groups in Nigeria. What this novel makes abundantly clear is that the true routes go back further than that – they were planted by British colonialism and worsened by continued foreign intervention and influence even after Nigerian independence.

This is why it is so important to see the lives of the characters before the war. Adichie also makes a great point in the Ted Talk that foreign stories about Africa have a bad practice of starting with “secondly”. To paraphrase what she explains in a far more articulate way: if you start the story with the failure of an African state, without the colonial creation of the African state, you have a very different story. It is manipulated. Half of a Yellow Sun shows what those stories omit.

I learnt an awful lot from this book. A point of view of Nigeria I hadn’t seen, a story I didn’t know. I realise that a lot of people don’t pick up a novel to learn, they do it to escape. However, I would urge those people to read this novel anyway – because as well as being necessary and informative it is so beautifully written, engrossing and, for lack of a better word, enjoyable. 

Despite the heavy subject matter of the book, it was very much a story I wanted to come back to because you do become invested in the lives of these characters. It is my favourite book of the year so far and I can’t wait to read more by Adichie.

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