Half of a Yellow Sun is a story of independence, war, betrayal and loss both for a nation and for a particular group of people swept up in it all. Set in the 1960s, it examines life in Nigeria on the eve of war and then during the chaos and violence of the Biafran war. While providing concise historical background on Nigeria and Biafra, Adichie, through her characters, shows how class division, race, culture, and gender fed into and were in turn influenced by conflict. This is a painful story to read, yet it is full of passion and truth, and ends on a note of both sadness and hope.
Adichie divides the novel into four parts, alternating between the early 60s and late 60s, and provides narration through three main characters. Ugwu is an uneducated teen from a small village who goes to work as a houseboy for a professor passionate about revolution and independence. Ugwu has great respect for his Master Odenigbo, who is trying to educate him, but Ugwu still has one foot in the village. He reads whatever he can, tries to improve himself and help Odenigbo, while dreaming of girls and sex. Olanna is a great beauty from a wealthy family. She is university educated and Odenigbo’s lover. Olanna is a strange mix of independent and dependent. She has a degree and teaches at the university, she is not interested in traditional marriage, but she still can rely on her parents’ wealth and on Odenigbo for support. As her twin sister Kainene says, Olanna loves Odenigbo blindly. Richard is a white British writer who feels alienated from fellow British ex-pats and more attuned to the Igbo people and their culture. He is struggling to write a book while falling in love with Kainene and becoming involved in the Biafran independence movement.
The interpersonal relationships of Adichie’s characters are at the center of the chapters dealing with the early 1960s. Odenigbo is the intellectual leader of a pro-independence movement at his university. He hosts weekly dinners, rather like salons, where fellow academics, including Olanna and Richard, come to drink and discuss politics — independence, the pan-African movement, foreign influence in Nigeria. Ugwu is fascinated by all he hears even when he cannot understand it. He desires to know more and perhaps to be more like Odenigbo. Meanwhile, Olanna feels a bit like a fish out of water among Odenigbo’s university friends. The men adore her for her beauty, while the other female academic seems resentful of her. Moreover, Odenigbo’s mother despises Olanna, calls her a witch and seems intent on thwarting the relationship. Ugwu’s concerns increase as he sees “Mama” engaging in what he recognizes as village rituals to hurt Olanna. Richard is fascinated by Ugwu’s stories of his village and wants to learn more about local culture and art. His fellow ex-pats, including a former lover named Susan, seem appalled at Richard’s interest in the locals, who seem “uncivilized” and prone to greed and war (pretty rich considering the avarice and violence of colonial powers in Africa).
Meanwhile, in the cities like Port Harcourt, Olanna’s father and her twin Kainene run a successful and profitable business dealing with government contracts. Kainene is quite different from her sister. She is not the beautiful one, and she knows it. Kainene is smart, organized, intimidating, and practical. Her affair with Richard seems surprising, to Richard especially, when she has links to so many more powerful and influential men. Olanna and Kainene’s relationship has grown strained over the years, and we know thanks to some foreshadowing that events are about to occur that will cause even greater damage to their relationship and to Olanna’s relationship with Odenigbo.
As these interpersonal relationships unfold, Nigeria inches toward civil war in the late 60s. Adichie does a wonderful job of giving the reader concise background on political developments that lead to war: British influence on the development of an independent Nigeria, divisions between the Hausa people of the north and the Igbo, British favor for the Hausa in the development of the new government, growing Igbo resentment, and then the first military coup followed by a second coup 6 months later. In this context, the reader sees Odenigbo and his university friends ecstatic at the prospect of a free and independent Biafra for the Igbo. They are ready to fight and expect to win quickly. But this war defies their expectations. Adichie provides brutal and vivid descriptions of the blockade and starvation of Biafra (aided and abetted by Western Democracies who saw the Biafran movement as communist), and of the horrifying atrocities committed against the Igbo. Each character witnesses unimaginable brutality and cannot remain unchanged by it. For some, it chips away at the soul, leaving a shell of the former self behind. For others, the atrocities galvanize them into action, revealing a strength and resilience unimagined.
For me, the central relationship is between the twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Kainene is my favorite character, and I found myself wanting to know more about her, just as Richard and Olanna do. The relationship between the two women is complicated but it evolves and provides the basis for hope in the face of horror. The ending of Half of a Yellow Sun is heartbreaking but beautifully hopeful for the sisters and for Nigeria. This is a superior novel and thanks to cannonballer Bonnie for sending this to me as part of the holiday book exchange last year.