Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Review by Lory Widmer Hess

“The people who offer us the best insights into reality are often novelists,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, [The Guardian, 14 Jan 2020] and reading Adichie’s own novel Half of a Yellow Sun puts that statement to the test. Can reading a novel about one of the twentieth century’s innumerable conflicts, the Nigerian-Biafran civil war of 1967 to 1970, truly bring us into the reality of that complex affair, in a way that makes it meaningful and present to us today?

Adichie does it by engaging a circle of characters through whose eyes we see the action, making us care about them and their fate, which does not mean merely physical survival, but their emotional and relational well-being too. At the center of this group are the non-identical twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, born into a wealthy family that has brought them outer privilege but also a certain inner discomfort. They are the characters who seem closest to Adichie’s heart, and their troubled relationship is the emotional center of the novel. The women’s respective lovers, the intellectual professor Odenigbo and white British transplant Richard, are more peripheral; even though some chapters are from Richard’s perspective, he seems to serve mainly to point up the weakness of even well-meaning Brits (the Empire overall is the villain of the piece). 

Much more vivid and memorable is Odenigbo’s houseboy Ugwu, who comes to the university town from a rural village and becomes indelibly interwoven into the life of the household. He is confronted with the greatest challenge, the greatest demand for transformation, and also perhaps makes the greatest failure, although in sympathy with his vulnerability we can only weep for the way war makes cowards of us all.

The Folio Society edition of Half of a Yellow Sun presents a stark exterior, with its gray cloth cover resembling the fabric of a low-grade military uniform, stamped with a jet-black image of a girl running, and only brightened by yellow (of course) type, with matching endpapers. Inside, utilitarian typography also marks the book with a military flavor; even though nearly half of the book is set before the war, the conflict casts its shadow over the whole, reinforced by summaries of a book one of the characters is to write in the future, The World Was Silent When We Died, that start to appear already in the early chapters. Only at the end do we discover who wrote this book, and by then we have lived through the shocking events it foretold, and much more.

Chapters are written from a close third-person point of view, jumping between Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard. The time frame also makes jumps, starting with a section set in “The Early Sixties” before the war, and then skipping to a point in “The Late Sixties” when Biafra has begun to fight for independence, while the characters of the novel have undergone some mysterious rift of their own. In the next section do we return to the earlier time and find out what happened, before jumping ahead again to the war’s end and aftermath.

This is a novel that shows us war from the point of view of civilians, and the non-linear timeline emphasizes the disjunction and shattering of relationships that can happen not just through military action, but through more personal misjudgments and misunderstandings. In fact, although armed conflicts come and go, it’s the fabric of love and family ties that must constantly be repaired and nurtured if human life is not to fall apart completely. This daily, difficult task is the real concern of the book, and for that, it is very likely true that novelists can give us the best insights. History and military chronicles may give us the mechanical aspects of campaigns and counteroffenses, sociology may try to explain the structure of social change, but only narrative can bring us the feeling of a living story which is the context within which we all fight our own battles.

Countering the monochrome tone of the book overall are the lively, colorful watercolor illustrations by Unyime Edet, which bring scenes from before and during the war to vivid expression. These bright, detailed images form a fitting complement to Adichie’s prose, which draws us into her fictional version of the real world through strong, tactile images. The very first scene pictures Ugwe’s auntie spitting on the grass when she brings him to his new master along with his memory of the coolness under a thatch roof, so different from the glass and cement of his new home. The rich and tantalizing and dangerous and disturbing images that we hear and see and smell and feel, the taste of the food and later the scarcity of food, are what make us feel we are living the story along with its inhabitants.

In the end, when much has been destroyed, something has also been rebuilt, and will continue to grow into the future. The indomitable nature of the human spirit, the indestructibility of love, is what shines through like a sun in the midst of very dark clouds. In her fiction that mixes fact with truth, drawing on the blood and tears of her own family history, Adichie has given us a piece of our global story, from which we may stand to learn something about ourselves and our world. The wars of the world will continue to come and go, but out of the rubble something may still rise.

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Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, illustrated by Unyime Edet (The Folio Society, 2022). 518pp., hardback.

Visit the Folio Society edition here.

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3 comments

  1. The publication looks exquisite and it’s described as well designed for the story it narrates. The review makes me want to read it as it’s obvious that Lory appreciated the story and regards it as well written.

    1. Definitely a Folio-worthy book.

  2. It was a good book, but so depressing

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