Nandakishore Varma's Reviews > Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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"The world was silent when we died."

This casual statement he once heard is used as the title of a book written by one of the characters in this novel, in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie chronicles the birth, short and tortured life and death of the State of Biafra: born on the 30th of May, 1967 from Nigeria and forcefully annexed back by the parent state, after a bitter war in which a million died, in January 1970.

Most of us, I suspect, do not know about this short-lived country. Even Wikipedia calls the war between Biafra and Nigeria a "civil war", thus denying legitimacy to the erstwhile nation: even though a number of countries recognised it. Since history is always written by the victors, the voice of the losers are often submerged in the general background noise.

I listened to a talk by the author - a very impressive one - about the danger of the "single story": the one that has been foisted on the world by the erstwhile colonial powers and called "history". These are opinions which are taught as facts, which tend to show an uncivilised "third world", and the West's "civilising" influence. This is so much bovine excrement. The colonial powers went into Asia and Africa to loot, and when the loot was finished, exited leaving miserable poverty and the flames of mutual hatred in the minds of people. This is the story which is not told.

Ms. Adichie also warns us about the "secondary story" in the speech; that is, starting the story from the second chapter, ignoring the first. Examples are plentiful - Palestinians attacking the peaceful state of Israel, without mentioning the death and displacement of thousand of Palestinians to create the said country; mutual hatred between India and Pakistan, without mentioning the hatred fomented by the British which resulted in the partition; endemic poverty and tribal violence in Africa, without mentioning the years of occupation by the West which created them. Up till recently, world history was made up of these secondary stories, which served as the "one story" which the former colonial powers wanted to propagate.

It is heartening to note that things are changing. People like Chimamanda are using the most powerful medium available to humans since the dawn of civilisation to bring about that change: the medium of the narrative. And it is here that the defeated people have an immense power which cannot be suppressed.

The world was silent when many died. But now it will have to listen, as the dead tell their story from beyond the grave.

---------------------------------------------------

As the British colonists left Nigeria, they did what they were expert at doing: drawing artificial national boundaries and inciting hatred in the minds of the people they ruled. So after a period of uneasy calm, Nigeria erupted in riots. The powerful Hausa people massacred the Igbo minority, whom they considered to be enjoying more benefits than was due them (see anything familiar here?), and the Igbo declared independence from Nigeria, and the state of Biafra was born. However, Nigeria could not let go of the oil-rich south: so war was declared. In a bitter battle which lasted two and a half years which left a million dead and the country devastated, Biafra was subjugated and wiped off the map.

Ms. Adichie passes the harsh white light of history through the prism of individual experience to create overlapping rainbows of narratives. In this, her style is similar to that of Paul Scott; however, whereas Scott’s narrative is an Indian tapestry where one has to search among the intricate coloured strands to see a pattern (or multiple conflicting patterns), Chimamanda’s work has all the blunt beauty of African art: the uncomplicated lines and the simple patterns which makes the medium all but transparent so that the narrator is talking directly to the listener. Scenes of utter despair and brutality are described very matter-of-factly, in almost Hemingway-esque prose. We are all sitting around a metaphorical campfire, listening to the author telling her story in uncomplicated prose.

But it does not mean that there are no nuances. The name, Half of a Yellow Sun, itself signifies separation, a paring; the fact that it is a reference to the Biafran flag makes it all the more significant. One of the three main characters through whose viewpoints we experience the tale, Olanna, is one of set of fraternal twins. Like twins in a fairy tale, the sisters are of diametrically opposite natures - Olanna is beautiful, revolutionary and optimistic; while her sister Kainene is plain, cynical and pessimistic. Of course, things are not so simple as they seem, and the sisters’ characters unfurl as the story progresses: showing us more and more layers, as the siblings move through their lives, facing love, hatred, betrayal, separation and loss against a nation that is slowly coming apart at the seams.

Another character through whose eyes we see the tragedy of Biafra is Richard Churchill, Kainene’s lover – an Englishman who has “gone native”. Richard is interested in Igbo pottery, and is ostensibly researching it. He is also trying to write a book which never seems to take shape – like character from a Kafka story, Richard plods on, reaching nowhere.

But for me, the character who holds the novel together is Ugwu, houseboy of Odenigbo, Olanna’s boyfriend. As we move across the Nigeria of the early sixties to the Biafra of the late sixties and then again, back to a unified Nigeria in 1970, Ugwu grows from child to man – in more ways than one. In the end, he becomes Richard’s spiritual heir of sorts, telling the story of the Igbo people of Nigeria, which Richard could never accomplish.

The story goes on.
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Reading Progress

January 5, 2015 – Shelved
January 5, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
April 26, 2015 – Started Reading
April 27, 2015 –
page 40
8.93%
April 29, 2015 –
page 83
18.53%
May 5, 2015 –
page 130
29.02%
May 6, 2015 –
page 130
29.02% "That night, she had the first Dark Swoop: A thick blanket descended from above and pressed itself over her face, firmly, while she struggled to breathe. Then, when it let go, freeing her to take in gulp after gulp of air, she saw burning owls at the window grinning and beckoning to her with charred feathers."
May 6, 2015 –
page 170
37.95%
May 7, 2015 –
page 204
45.54%
May 8, 2015 –
page 235
52.46% "“You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?” Aunty Ifeka said. “Your life belongs to you and you alone, soso gi."\n \n You tell 'em, Auntie!"
May 8, 2015 –
page 323
72.1%
May 9, 2015 –
page 380
84.82%
May 10, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Seemita (new) - added it

Seemita "Secondary Story" - This concept really stuck with me. How so many things that we debate with the masterly air of an advocate are half-truths or even worse, complete lies.

Thank you for this evocative review, NK. Wonderful prodding.


Nandakishore Varma Seemita wrote: ""Secondary Story" - This concept really stuck with me. How so many things that we debate with the masterly air of an advocate are half-truths or even worse, complete lies.

Thank you for this evoca..."


Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Seemita. I shall expand on this review over the coming days, when I get more time.

Listen to Chimamanda's talk on the author page. She speaks excellently.


Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ This book already on my to read list. Will listen to the talk later. :)


message 4: by Samadrita (last edited May 11, 2015 12:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Samadrita "The world was silent when many died. But now it will have to listen, as the dead tell their story from beyond the grave."

No more words are required. Glad you loved this, NK.


Nandakishore Varma Samadrita wrote: ""The world was silent when many died. But now it will have to listen, as the dead tell their story from beyond the grave."

No more words are required. Glad you loved this, NK."


Thank you. I have more to write on this book. There are so many things to analyse.


message 6: by Amogha (last edited May 11, 2015 02:25AM) (new) - added it

Amogha Adichie's books are so full of remarkable under-plots which can be analysed in so many ways. I've read Americanah recently and her debut novel Purple Hibuscus a year ago.

Half a Yellow Son has been on my to-read list. Can't wait to read it.

The world was silent when many died. But now it will have to listen, as the dead tell their story from beyond the grave.

Brilliant lines and a wonderful review !


Nandakishore Varma Amogha wrote: "Adichie's books are so full of remarkable under-plots which can be analysed in so many ways. I've read Americanah recently and her debut novel Purple Hibuscus a year ago.

Half a Yellow Son has be..."


Thank you!


message 8: by Jibran (last edited May 11, 2015 12:40PM) (new) - added it

Jibran Eloquent and evocative write-up, NK. You have summed up the raison d'être of this novel beautifully.

As the British colonists left Nigeria, they did what they were expert at doing: drawing artificial national boundaries and inciting hatred in the minds of the people they ruled. So after a period of uneasy calm, Nigeria erupted in riots. The powerful Hausa people massacred the Igbo minority, whom they considered to be enjoying more benefits than was due them (see anything familiar here?)

Typical. In every single country the much-talked but least-understood "divide and rule" was at work. It's only through detailed examples that people today are able to comprehend the extent of the damage wreaked by the "civilising mission." The Western media in particular won't dwell on it. Maybe they feel too guilty and embarrassed to accept the full horror of their responsibility in turning large swathes of the planet into conflicted wasteland. True, in some cases locals will have to share the responsibility for not seeing through the subterfuge and succumbing to it, but responsibility is proportional to power, and the power still lies in the hands of the richest few countries. The tragedy is that exploitation and theft and manipulation are still continuing in its newer manifestation without let or hindrance. And Western denial led by the U.S. still runs strong.

God save the Queen.


Nandakishore Varma Jibran wrote: "Eloquent and evocative write-up, NK. You have summed up the raison d'être of this novel beautifully.

As the British colonists left Nigeria, they did what they were expert at doing: drawing artific..."


Thank you, Jibran. The British Empire is responsible for most of the misery currently in the world - however, they have done great PR work to cast themselves in the role of heroes and Germany as the villain.


Margitte Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favorite authors and this book was more than just an amazing read. Your captures the essence of her writing, as well as the story so good in this review. Your review is just as worth the read as the book itself.


Nandakishore Varma Margitte wrote: "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favorite authors and this book was more than just an amazing read. Your captures the essence of her writing, as well as the story so good in this review. Your ..."

I somehow missed your comment! Thanks for the warm praise.


message 12: by Nandakishore (last edited Jan 10, 2016 10:50PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nandakishore Varma Fatty wrote: "Fantastic review! Also couldn't agree more with your comment about the British Empire."

Thank you. If we really reinvestigate the history of colonialism, I suspect Britain would be found responsible for more misery and death than the Third Reich.


kisha Beautiful review. I read it twice.


Nandakishore Varma kisha wrote: "Beautiful review. I read it twice."

Thank you.


Mohammed Rasheen "The world was silent when many died. But now it will have to listen, as the dead tell their story from beyond the grave."

im at the last pages of this book, now things are playing in my head like a movie, i read somebody saying down in some review of this book that characters are week and not very developed, but i feel Ugwu was so realistic, kaineni and richard too, those are my favorite people in this novel.
i loved your review.


Nandakishore Varma Mohd wrote: ""The world was silent when many died. But now it will have to listen, as the dead tell their story from beyond the grave."

im at the last pages of this book, now things are playing in my head like..."


Thank you. The characters in this book were very well drawn, IMO.


message 17: by Shubham (new) - added it

Shubham Woww.. I was looking for a review to decide if I should read the book... But Sir your review is gripping..


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