Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of a Nigerian family in the 1960s before and during the Biafra crisis. The book opens several years before the war, and follows the lives and loves of a small group of well educated university people, then cuts to and from the Biafran conflict as the story unfolds.
The opening chapter was very striking and particularly effective. It introduces the main characters, living on a university campus and discussing politics and philosophy over bottles of alcohol. It concludes in an amusing triangular relationship in which the house servant is worried about being usurped by the new mistress of his boss. This relationship acts as a kind of ironic summary of the whole colonial enterprise: she is seen as the coloniser in his domain, whilst he is worried that he will be discarded and replaced.
Adichie is a clever writer and the scenes before the Biafran war are amusing. The characters are varied and reveal a range of quirks and flaws. They mimic European habits and prize the ability to speak English well. They are well educated but I guess many of them overestimate their own abilities: we are shown this in an understated and amusing way.
There is snobbery and tribalism, but this is shown through individual characters and not in broader more general terms. So a protagonist’s mother criticises both his mistress, and his failure to marry a serious woman and produce children. She is dismissive of his servant’s rural and uneducated background, and criticises his cooking. In order to procure grandchildren for herself she introduces a young girl from the village to her son’s household, and partakes in various rituals. to encourage their love. The poor girl becomes pregnant, but of course that solves no problems at all. I enjoyed this part of the book the most, it’s full of human observations and humour.
Later there is infidelity and betrayal within the group, and in particular within one family, so that when the war begins the family conflict further separates the characters, and we await both denouements – that of the civil war, and of the war within the family.
Half of a Yellow Sun was on the shelf for a long time before I finally plucked up the courage to read it. I was alive in the 60s, and remember the cruel jokes about Biafrans, and the horrific nature of the war, so the book didn’t seem an enticing prospect. But I was quite young then and knew few of the facts so it was interesting to discover more about how the war started. It seems that jealousy about the financial success and the power of the Igbo tribe provoked violent attacks from the moslem community in the north of the country, which led to Biafra seceding from Nigeria and declaring independence under its own flag – a half of a yellow sun.
Biafra was badly lead, and its people lied to repeatedly: well that’s not unusual is it? Defeat was inevitable but slow and painful. It occupies most of the second half of the book, and makes the novel quite hard going.
Adichie is a great writer, and I really recommend her work. It’s amazing to think that someone with such serious aspirations and achievements as a writer and feminist has been used by Boots to advertise makeup.
One up for literature there I say. But if you are interested in Adichie’s writing, don’t start with Half of a Yellow Sun, try: