We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers”, states Chinua Achebe. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. She is fearless, or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war”.
What is at stake in Adichie’s second novel is the aftermath of one of the most painful events in Nigerian history. Set in the 1960s, Half of a Yellow Sun anchors its narrative in the secession of the eastern Nigerian Igbo people to form the independent nation of Biafra, resulting in three years of bloody civil war and the loss of over a million lives. Adichie honours the memory of a war which has been largely forgotten, through the energy of beautifully crafted and totally realised characters, characters who live through wrenching experiences yet rise above the limitations surrounding them. As Achebe says, Adichie takes on the horror of the civil war and bluntly portrays its realities: the struggle to survive Biafra in the face of bombing raids, starvation, rape and the over-powering fear of identity being lost through relentless violence. The novel leaves the reader stunned at the horrors people will inflict on one another, but Adichie does not allow the wartime setting to overshadow the humanity of her characters and their relationships.
The book largely follows the story of Olanna, the beautiful mistress of charismatic professor Odenigbo, for whom she abandons a privileged life in Lagos. The reader cannot help but identify with her capacity for strong compassion, love and pain. Along with Olanna’s passion and warmth, the beautifully rounded character Ugwu, an Igbo country boy who becomes the professor’s houseboy, gives Adichie’s portrayal of Africa its richness, sensuality and colour.
Adichie’s method of storytelling successfully negotiates both historical truth and the human psyche. She leaves the telling entirely to her characters so that the narration is vivid, yet at the same time there is a silence at its core which allows the characters, their passions, emotions and turmoil, to resonate through the text. It is for this reason that the personal narrative of Half of a Yellow Sun is so engaging. It is honest and cutting, yet at the same time human, loving and intensely evocative.