My coworker Baby B started reading Half of a Yellow Sun, our current work book club book, before anyone else did, and she spoke of it with crazy-eyed love of the sort I have previously only seen in her with reference to the creative team behind Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. In case you do not know, Half of a Yellow Sun (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is a novel about four characters living in Nigeria before and during the Biafran War.
The beginning: There are three point-of-view characters, in alternating chapters: Ugwu, a house servant for Odenigbo, a professor at the university in Nsukka; Olanna, Odenigbo’s girlfriend who has come to live with him; and Richard, a white Englishman who is in love with Olanna’s sister Kainene. They are all living in relative peace and happiness in Nigeria in the early 1960s, and Baby B was completely right. This book is amazing. I am definitely keeping it forever.
I love all these characters so much that I can only take approximately four chapters of loving them before I am forced to read the end and also the book’s Wikipedia page. I just have to know who’s going to die at the end, if anyone.
The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight blank spaces to see them): Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell. It did not occur to me to worry about this particular possibility. Oh if there is one thing in literature I am awful at dealing with, it is missing sisters. I feel like some of Baby B’s enthusiasm for this book will be muted when she gets to the end, as she is extremely fond of her own fraternal twin, Baby A. I one time abandoned a Barbara Kingsolver book because it was becoming clear to me that the similar situation in that book was going to resolve itself in one of two ways that would upset me very much. However, I was not enjoying that book nearly as much as I have been enjoying Half of a Yellow Sun.
Okay. I might not keep this book forever, after all. Missing sisters just gut me.
The whole: As soon as I started Half of a Yellow Sun, I was sure it was going to be a keeper. Adichie’s writing is beautiful, and the moment she introduces her characters, I want to spend more time with them. The strength of the book lies (I think) in everyone’s absolute ordinariness. Odenigbo is kinder to his house boy than most people; Olanna and Kainene come from nouveau riche parents and grew up with the best of everything; Ugwu is proud of his cooking; Richard wants to write a book. Adichie has said this book is a “tribute to love”, and the love she feels for the characters, and their love for each other, radiates from every page.
It also, of course, makes the onset of war even more jarring. To an extent, this reminded me of The Book Thief–the way it portrays everyday things that go on while other people are out fighting the war, and the sudden, shattering ways that the war can suddenly be at your doorstep. Half of a Yellow Sun has scenes that are very very hard to read.
I had to pause in writing this review because I was trying to figure out how to say what I want to say here. Adichie has talked before about the danger of a single story, how it’s possible to get this idea of Africa as being a certain way, just perpetually war-torn and poverty-stricken and wretched, and tune out any other stories. When I began reading Half of a Yellow Sun, I knew it was about war in Africa, and I knew there would be terrible tragedies, and it was and there were. But Adichie makes them feel freshly like a travesty, if that makes sense. The scenes that I had to get up from were hard to read because they were nothing like ordinary life ever but here they were in someone’s ordinary life.
I don’t know. I think I’m explaining this very badly. I mean that the book never assumes tragedy comes next. It assumes that next comes sanity and salvation. (Only that’s not what happens, because war.) And that is what I always assume too, and that I think is why the book was so striking and painful.
Really, I can’t say enough about the characters and the writing. If you haven’t read Half of a Yellow Sun, which I feel like everyone but me already has since it’s been out for years–anyway, if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it.