Half of a Yellow Sun
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Paperback: 543 pages
Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (September 4, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1400095204
ISBN-13: 978-1400095209

On the back cover this work of fiction, the blurb provides the following description of the story:

‘In the 1960s Nigeria, a county blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. When the shocking horror of the war engulfs them, their loyalties are severely tested as they are pulled apart and thrown together in ways that none of them imagined …’

The war mentioned in the passage above is the Nigeria-Biafra War which happened between 1967 and 70. This work of literary fiction gave me an insight into what happened in this land that is so far away from where I live (Malaysia). While it was interesting to learn about this terrible War, I enjoyed, even more, learning about the people: the differences between the Igbo and Yoruba, the food they ate, where they lived, the kind of dress they wore and so on. It was all in the details and it comes as no surprise for the author says, in an interview published at the end of the book:

‘I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t even want to forget.’

These are very powerful words from the author and go to show her dedication to making this story so real, so alive and such a pleasure to read.
What remains after reading the whole novel are some home truths, which would apply even in Malaysia. For example, one of the characters, Madu, asks Richard to write for the Propaganda Directorate. Richard says no and when he is asked if has thought about it, the ensuing exchange between him and Madu is very telling:

[Richard says,] “You would not have asked me if I were not white.”
[Madu replies,] “Of course I asked because you are white. They will take what you write more seriously because you are white. Look, the truth is that this is not your war. This is not your cause. Your government will evacuate you in a minute if you ask them to. … If you really want to contribute, this is the way that you can. … They will believe a white man who lives in Biafra and who is not a professional journalist.”

The sequence of events was very well plotted throughout this novel. The joys, the sadness and the very real fear of the characters were all narrated with style and elegance. Perhaps, the most telling part of the tale is that the title (‘Half of a Yellow Sun’) is so beautifully reflected in the way the story ends: one has the sense that the story is only half told since there is still a need for Olanna to find her sister. And, yet, the tale is at an end.
Other more memorable passages from this novel are:

‘They all laughed. There was something habitual about it, as if they had had different variations of this conversation so many times that they knew just when to laugh. Olanna laughed too and felt for a moment that her laughter sounded different, more shrill, than theirs.’
‘Each time he suggested they get married, she said no. They were too happy, precariously so, and she wanted to guard that bond; she feared that marriage would flatten it to a prosaic partnership.’
‘She put it down on the bedside table and came over and hugged him, a tremulous tightening of her arms around him. He was so surprised he did not hug her back. She had never embraced him that closely unless they were in bed. She did not seem to know what to make of the hug either because she backed away from him quickly and lit the cigarette. He thought about that hug often, and each time he did he had the sensation of a wall crumbling.’
‘The sudden thought that something might be wrong with her body wrapped itself around her, dampened her.’

This is one book I shall buy several copies of to give as gifts to people. I have enjoyed reading it and will not hesitate to recommend it to others.
27 January 2009

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