Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun

I picked this up at the airport in London last summer as part of a "3-for" deal.  I'd never heard of the author before but both of her novels sounded interesting.  I picked this one because the description of the other one talked about family secrets, and I felt like I'd read a lot of those types of stories recently, and figured I should switch it up.  As it turns out, I should have picked up both of them even though I didn't know the author and skipped out on A Spot of Bother (I just couldn't get into it - might have been the environment I was reading it in, too).


The novel takes place in '60s Nigeria - it is broken down into four basic parts that alternate between the early '60s and the late '60s. The second time Adichie returns to the early '60s she fills in a few gaps about how everyone's lives developed, and there are a few minor surprises given the hints and circumstances that she described in her first section occurring in the late '60s.  It is told from the perspective of three characters, Ugwu, Olanna and Richard.  I enjoyed the parts focusing on Ugwu, a village boy that becomes the house servant of a professor, and Olanna, the professor's lover who comes from a privileged background.  I found Richard, the white man who comes to Nigeria and stays the most boring of the characters, though still well developed.  He is in love with Olanna's twin sister, but despite their relationship and his love for Nigeria, he is always aware of his status as an outsider.  Compared to the other whites in the novel, he is much more genuine and interested in the culture of Nigeria, but he still accidentally makes statements that are easily misunderstood.  I guess the reason I liked him the least is that I felt like I'd seen his type of character before in other novels about other countries - the white, British guy who assimilates to a post-colonial country, and even though this is a different country, his problems and attitudes were basically the same as in other novels.  I didn't dislike him, but I guess he seemed the most derivative.  Not that the other characters were exactly original, either, but they worked for me more, for some reason.
Adichie describes the ethnic violence and tensions that followed two different military coups.  Olanna, Ugwu and their families are Igbos against whom much of the violence was directed.  As a result of the tension, the eastern part of Nigeria, which was predominantly Igbo, seceded and became the independent country Biafra, though after an unsuccessful war, the east returned to Nigeria.  Adichie talks about the effect the war had on the day to day life of her characters, the fear, the deprivation, and life as a refugee/displaced person.  As she notes in the afterword, some of her family members had fought for Biafra so she grew up with their stories.


The novel was very well plotted, and showed me just how little I know of African history.  For some reason I thought that Nigeria had one of the calmer histories of the different African countries but this obviously proved me wrong.  I really need to start paying more attention to contemporary history and the news.

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