Friday, February 19, 2010

30 Second Review: Half of a Yellow Sun

By now, I can sense if I will like the book I am reading within the first few sentences. It does not matter what genre, what characters or who is the author. With these books, there is a certain tone, a crispness and texture to the words, that when they lift off the page and into my head, I know right away that I am in danger of falling in love.

Such was the case with this novel, written by
Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, a young Nigerian writer who, for her second novel, chose a dangerous subject, with very personal connotations, a story of five people caught in the War of Biafra.

But this is not a story of horror. Biafra, after all, was where the images of the fly-covered starved African children came from. This is a different sort of story. It is a nuanced and beautiful character study. These people may very well have existed, because within these pages they breathe, live and feel and we with them. Beautiful Olanna, her sister Kainene, her lover Richard, fiery Odenigbo and his houseboy Ugwu, and all those around them are all as painfully human. These five represent the upper middle class of just-independent Nigeria and live, work and play - until the war comes.

The story is told in four parts, with Part A followed by C, then by B and then D. This creates an interesting tension and mystery, because even though by the time what is mentioned in the second part unfolds in the third, and even though you may have it figured out, Adichie still makes it into an unexpected and exciting reveal. Also sprinkled throughout are clippings of a book being written in the novel's world, which brilliantly add foreboding to otherwise cheery parts of the book and were pleasant asides.These devices do wonders for the pace and without them, this would have been a lesser novel. This, and how she also sprinkled many hints throughout, reminded me of how Gabriel Garcia-Marquez can travel decades in one sentence, to my delight.

At all times, though, Biafra is the reason for the book and is always at the fore. Still, what propels this novel is how Adichie chose not to sink the novel into the horrors of this war, which there were many, without avoiding them. She does not place blame on any one country or source, not even entirely the Nigerians and has her characters dismiss Biafra's own propaganda without wavering in their devotion. Her main purpose with this novel is to tell the story of a people who had dreamt of sovereignty and safety, but were themselves misguided and mistrusted by the world and so were punishingly defeated through inaction by their neighbors and starvation by the Nigerians. Really, the ones she blames most are the British, who for the sake of their convenience, in decades made blood enemies of tribes friendly for centuries.
In this, her story remains humane, never idealistic, felt by the reader through the characters.

In this, Adichie treats the reader with intelligence and respect, while teaching them about something that very few anymore care about. In this, she wishes that what happened will not be forgotten and maybe never be repeated again.

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