Julie Christine's Reviews > Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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When Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960, it stood to be one of the most prosperous, productive, and influential nations on the continent. Rich with natural resources, including vast reserves of oil, it possessed an educated middle class and a cultural life that blended multiple ethnic groups, languages and religions in a vast and vibrant collective.

Like many African nations colonized by Europeans, its borders had been drawn with little regard for political and cultural realities. In Nigeria, those realities were the political divisions that fell largely along ethnic lines: a mostly Muslim population in the North, dominated by Hausa and Fulani; Igbo in the southeast; Yoruba in the southwest.

Only six years after independence, Nigeria began to fall apart. A coup destroyed the fragile trust between these ethnic groups and a portion of eastern Nigeria declared itself the free state of Biafra. In July 1967, the Nigerian Civil War, known more colloquially as the “Biafran War,” began. Thirty months later over one million Biafrans had died from fighting and famine. In January 1970, Biafra surrendered and was reabsorbed into Nigeria.

It is an epic story that few outside of the region or African Studies departments on European and American university campuses recall, much less make sense of.

This is why we have always needed storytellers. This is why, in this age of scroll-and-skim journalism, we need storytellers more than ever.

Let's be honest. How many of us would pick up a work of narrative non-fiction, no matter how well-written, to learn about the Biafran War? Do we know the first thing about Nigeria—hell, about Africa? This is how fiction changes the world. Despite our best efforts at ignorance, fiction brings the world to us, takes us inside the lives of those whose histories, realities, battles are so very different from our own. The imagined stories lead us to the factual ones. We find ourselves searching out the history, reading the articles, the long-form journalism pieces, perhaps even the books, asking, “How did this happen and I knew nothing about it? What is this place? Who are the Igbo, the Hausa, and why does it matter now.”

Let Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tell you why this nation, the war, this story matters. Let her characters into your heart and wince as they break it, over and over again.

Half of a Yellow Sun—which takes its name from the emblem of Biafra—reveals a Nigeria that could have been, before it became a nation split by war. Set in the early and late 1960s, the narrative revolves around twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, members of the Igbo élite. Both women are single and live independently from their Lagos-based parents. Olanna and her lover Odenigbo share a home in the southern city of Nsukka, where they teach at the university. Kainene manages her father’s business affairs from her home in Port Harcourt and falls in love with a British writer, Richard. Olanna is the story’s principal voice, but it is Odenigbo’s young houseboy, Ugwu, who provides the most poignant perspective, while Richard offers a detached counterpoint of someone yearning to fit in, but whose very skin signals, “Outsider.”

Half of a Yellow Sun is magnificent in detail. I heard, smelled, saw, felt, tasted the world that Adichie painstakingly creates. Her heart beats with such fierce love for and pride in Nigeria that the country becomes a character in its own right, and as a reader, you witness its tearing apart with such dread and sorrow. Adichie was born in 1977, but she lost family members to war and famine and surely was raised in the shadow of tragedy. Yet her goal is not to tell a history of the political struggle, but to let us feel the human conflict. The plot framework is built on the conflict between ethnic groups and political factions, but the story rises from the families and lovers separated by cultural, moral, and emotional borders.

There is a slight dip and drag to the pace as we learn the depths of misunderstanding and animosity between the sisters, or witness the unraveling of the radical Odenigbo, or dip into Richard’s ingratiating attempts to be accepted by Nigerians. Adichie’s paintbrush drips thick, rich colors that swirl together in a dense mix of characters and details. But everything about her writing is so warm and lush and welcoming, you just want her to go on and on, filling every inch of the canvas with her beautifully-crafted phrases, her characters full of curves and silky skin, her streets vibrating with High Life music.

And when sorrow and brutality and suffering come, and come they will, you will want to look away. You will not want to believe that this really happened. But happen it did. Happen it does still.

Still a powerful, vibrant nation with vast natural resources, Nigeria is once again in the headlines. And the news is not good: NPR: Boko Haram Fighters Seize Nigerian Army Base JANUARY 05, 2015 5:02 AM ET Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Too often we turn away from these current events because we don’t understand the complexities of nations too distant to cause a ripple in our morning coffee. Because we have disaster and conflict fatigue. These places matter only when we’ve been touched personally by events.

Outside of time spent living in a place, reading a great work of literature, one that makes the political personal and the foreign familiar, is the best way to ensure we remain aware of and moved by the world around us. For Nigeria’s sake, Half of a Yellow Sun is just such a book.
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Reading Progress

July 29, 2014 – Shelved
July 29, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
December 27, 2014 – Started Reading
December 27, 2014 – Shelved as: africa-theme-setting
December 27, 2014 – Shelved as: book-club-selection
December 28, 2014 –
page 104
19.22% "I love the slow and deliberate way Adichie brings us into Olanna's and Kainene's worlds..."
December 29, 2014 –
page 185
34.2%
December 30, 2014 –
page 218
40.3% "Had to stop this morning to do some more background research on Biafra and the civil war. The independence movement is again on the rise."
December 31, 2014 –
page 271
50.09% "He told her often that the experience had changed her and made her more inward. He used massacre when he spoke to his friends, but never with her. It was as if what had happened in Kano was a massacre, but what she had seen was an experience."
January 1, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
January 1, 2015 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
January 1, 2015 – Shelved as: war-conflict
January 1, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015
January 1, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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nonexistentdecimal You choose the best books, Julie! Thanks for that.


Julie Christine NonexistentDecimal wrote: "You choose the best books, Julie! Thanks for that." Aww, thank you! It's a privilege to read and to share.


Cheryl Islamist extremists have been trying to gain control of parts of Africa for some time now and unfortunately, Nigeria has seen its fair share, including the capture of hundreds of girls from a private boarding school. Like Hilary Clinton said before, the world needs to pay attention to the war on terror in Africa. It's all saddening. Thanks for sharing the link, Julie.

Great review of a great piece of literature. Biafra sometimes seems as though it never existed because of the history there. I'm glad that both Adichie and Achebe wrote about it. This is one of the reasons this novel is so prized to me; it highlights an important time and setting that you don't see in literature.


message 4: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane Barnes I have this one, and look forward to reading it.


Julie Christine Cheryl wrote: "Islamist extremists have been trying to gain control of parts of Africa for some time now and unfortunately, Nigeria has seen its fair share, including the capture of hundreds of girls from a priva..."

Cheryl, when Boko Haram kidnapped those girls last spring, I kept waiting for the world's outrage. It came, finally, two months later, but of course it was shortlived. Granted, I don't have television, but NPR was one of the few U.S. media outlets reporting on it- at least they have permanent correspondents in Africa. Two. More than most.
We must pay attention. Peace and security in Africa should be among our highest priorities and these cannot be achieved without stability, which cannot be achieved without lifting up the most vulnerable. Those girls have to matter to us all.
I read "Things Fall Apart" over 20 years ago. In Chad, of all places. But I need to finish the trilogy. I've just added "There Was a Country" to my TBR list. Oh. Thank you. Thank you for talking to me about this.


Julie Christine Diane wrote: "I have this one, and look forward to reading it." It's tremendous, Diane. I hope you enjoy.


Nandakishore Varma Wonderful review, as always, Julie. :)

I know many Nigerians: they dominate the field of Safety in Engineering. Being the safety field myself, I have worked with quite a few. They are intelligent, compassionate and erudite people.

Sad this is happening to their country. :(


Claire McAlpine Had to laugh at your question "how many of us would pick up a work of narrative non-fiction, no matter how well-written, to learn about the Biafran War?" Just before reading your review, I added China Achebe's There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra the memoir published just before his death, one who finally spoke about it.


Julie Christine Claire wrote: "Had to laugh at your question "how many of us would pick up a work of narrative non-fiction, no matter how well-written, to learn about the Biafran War?" Just before reading your review, I added Ch..."

Love it! That's why we're friends :) It's on my TBR list, as well. So much to learn . . .


Julie Christine Nandakishore wrote: "Wonderful review, as always, Julie. :)

I know many Nigerians: they dominate the field of Safety in Engineering. Being the safety field myself, I have worked with quite a few. They are intelligen..."


Thank you, Nandakishore. It is tragic, but not hopeless.


message 11: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne Wonderful review, Julie. I have been interested in books about Africa lately and look forward to reading this one:)


message 12: by Melissa (new)

Melissa C Hi Julie. Again you dazzle with your review. I've added this book to my tbr list as a result.


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "Wonderful review, Julie. I have been interested in books about Africa lately and look forward to reading this one:)"

Me, too, Suzanne. I'll be keeping an eye on your TBR list for Africa-themed reads!


Julie Christine Melissa wrote: "Hi Julie. Again you dazzle with your review. I've added this book to my tbr list as a result." Melissa-thank you! I hope this is one you enjoy.


message 15: by Suzanne (new) - added it

Suzanne It's not a novel, but The Zanzibar Chest was especially good. You might want to look into it.


Julie Christine Suzanne wrote: "It's not a novel, but The Zanzibar Chest was especially good. You might want to look into it." Excellent, Suzanne-thank you so much!!


Sayalee Vadnerkar Your review is too good! I read the book! AMAZING!!!


Julie Christine Sayalee wrote: "Your review is too good! I read the book! AMAZING!!!"
Thank you, Sayalee! It was good to revisit this review and this book. One of my favorite authors!


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