Review: Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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.

  • You are so much more articulate than I could ever be. Lovely post, Jenny.

    • Gin Jenny

      Exactly what I always think when you’ve reviewed a book I love! :p

  • Nice review, Jenny! I didn’t read half of your review, because I got this book last week and am hoping to read it soon. Thanks for this enthusiastic review.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh, I hope you love it! It’s such a wonderful book.

  • Sounds good. I have had this on the tbr too long.

    • Gin Jenny

      I had too, and I’m really glad book club gave me the nudge I needed to actually read it.

  • Great review of one of my favourite books. Have you read anything else by Adichie?

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes! She has this year become one of my favorite authors. I read Purple Hibiscus years ago and liked it pretty well, and this year I read her other two novels and thought they were amazing. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

  • This was one of those books I thought was so great, I couldn’t think of anything to say about it. Thank you for being articulate! 🙂

    • Gin Jenny

      I had a hard time writing this post for that very reason! Adichie is such a good writer.

  • Every time I see a review of this book, I can’t believe that I haven’t read this author yet. I don’t know if this theme is for me but I definitely want to read this author soon.

    • Gin Jenny

      I think Americanah is a really good place to start, if you’re not sure you can handle the very upsetting violence in Half of a Yellow Sun. Americanah is beautifully written and very funny.

  • It happens every time. Every time I think I have my reading list all worked out – and the order in which I will read the titles on my list – one of my blogging buddies suggests another book in such a wonderful way that it blows my plans all to H-E-Double Hockey Sticks. I’ll have to check the library to see if they have it.

    • Gin Jenny

      They should! It’s been a few years since it came out (actually quite a few years, I’m surprised how long it took me to read it), so the mad demand for it should have eased a little.

      There is a movie coming out soon though! So you should read it before the movie happens.

  • I have wanted to read this book for ages, for ages…but it was described to me as heart-breaking and I didn’t want that. Also, I feel this year I read too many sad/depressing books and so I am planning to avoid them for the rest of the year at least 🙁

    • Gin Jenny

      That is an extremely reasonable position. it was described to you accurately. It is heartbreaking. Very heartbreaking. I put off reading it for that reason too, and even though I loved it when I finally read it, I don’t think my reason was invalid.

  • Maybe I will pick this one up in my misery loves company phase in my newly empty nest.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, your misery would have to love QUITE A LOT of company.

  • JoV

    I am glad you love this Jenny. A must read indeed.

    • Gin Jenny

      I did, I did! Wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m glad she’s still quite young and we can look forward to many more books by her over the years.

  • aartichapati

    I don’t think you described this badly at all. I have this in my wish list at the library, as well as her newer one, Americanah. Excited to have the, both to read, even if I end up as a sobbing mess.