An edited version of a review that appeared in the July 13 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is a luminous work that first unfolds against the backdrop of a newly-independent Nigeria in the early Sixties, and then against the tragic struggle for Biafra some years later. (The title, in fact, is an allusion to the emblem on the short-lived Biafran flag.)
Such subject matter could lend itself to a heart-on-sleeve polemic; it is a measure of Adichie’s talent that she doesn’t let this happen, focusing instead on the destinies of characters from different backgrounds caught up in and transformed by the conflict. In particular, they are Ugwu, the bright teenage houseboy from a remote village; Odenigbo, the principled but deluded professor in whose house Ugwu is employed; the gentle, urbane Olanna and the inscrutable, sharp Kainene, non-identical twins, the former living with Odenigbo and the latter with Richard, a British journalist who finds a new home in Nigeria.
Adichie is skilled at defining her characters, and even the ones with smaller parts are economically but memorably etched. Her prose is limpid – never overwritten or pretentious, it is a pane of glass through which we glimpse the dilemmas and actions of people involved in a civil war that is anything but civil.
Though her sympathies clearly belong to the oppressed, the author is clear-eyed about the conflict. She shows us the pride and traditions of the tragic Igbo people, but also depicts their self-deluding optimism about the future and the many desperate measures they take towards the end of the war. There are lighter moments, too, as well as observations that reveal the pleasures and pitfalls of human relationships.
The narrative ends with an extract from a book in progress, as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart does. Both an echo and inversion of Achebe’s ending, this is a comment on who is entitled to write Africa’s history, and a symbolic call to remember, learn from and consecrate the conflict. In fulfilling these aims, this novel of love and war succeeds with élan.
Worth your while? If you're under the delusion that the novel is a dying form, this is your wake-up call.
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