I love that moment when you read the first sentence of a book and you know that you are immediately hooked. Your eyes widen, your hands clench the book a little tighter and you feel yourself sinking into the words... That's exactly the way I felt when I opened Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love historical fiction and I am particularly interested in recent African history at the moment, so the fact that this book caught my eye is a no-brainer, but there is SO much more to it than that (more about that a bit further down).
Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria in the early and late 60's, before, during and a little after the civil war that ensued after Biafra attempts to secede from the rest of the state of Nigeria. Adichie takes us from the independence from Great Britain in 1960, through the military coups that follow, the rising ethnic clashes and violence (specifically against the Igbo) and resulting secession and declaration of independence of Biafra and it's struggle to survive amidst a civil war that breaks out. We follow the story through the eyes and words of five very strong characters: Ugwu, a houseboy who comes to work for the revolutionary university professor Odenigbo; Odenigbo's lover, the beautiful and well-educated Olanna; Olanna's twin sister Kainene; and Kainene's lover Richard, the Englishman who makes his way to Nigeria to write about Igbo art, and falls in love with both the country and Kainene.The story weaves through these characters lives and portrays an image of life in Nigeria before the war: the passion of the Igbo and the creation of their own state, the interactions with life in the villages, life within the urban middle-class and the remaining British ex-pats who keep themselves away from the Nigerian population, hanging on to what is left of the colony days. Adichie provides us with a beautiful story of love, hatred, war, death and humanity (as well as inhumanity).
There is no need to be interested in African history to enjoy this novel, although if you are it is definitely a must-read. Adichie's prose is pretty much sublime in my opinion - she builds such a passionate story line, and develops her characters so intensely well that you are standing there with them all the way, hurting when they hurt, laughing when they laugh, falling in love when they fall in love. My favourite character (after much deliberation) is Ugwu, the young boy who becomes an indispensable part of the family that hires him. I also love Olanna's fierce independence that is coupled with her fear of losing everything she loves... Each character is completely human, imperfect and real, I feel like there is a part of everyone in all of them. There are many difficult parts, specifically the descriptions of massacres, rape, death and starvation, but all are important in understanding the complexity of the situation and the passion of the people to be free of outside, controlling power.
I cried a lot reading this book, and it probably wasn't a good idea to finish it on my subway ride back home last night, with tears running down my face; and many a time I felt like I was being punched in the stomach, but all the same, I couldn't stop reading. I could literally see and smell the country through the words, and this is something that I admire so much in a writer - the ability to really create a world that I have never seen before right before my eyes. Adichie is only a year older than me, and I feel like she has created a beauty of a novel, set in very disturbing times. I can't wait to read her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck. So very inspiring.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's website