Tony's Reviews > Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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really liked it
bookshelves: nigerian

Did you see the photos in sixty-eight
Of children with their hair becoming rust:
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads.
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust?


_____ _____ _____ _____

I would have been in grade school, or just entering high school. Adolescent discomfiture was the main thing on my mind. What I knew of the larger world came from photojournalism: Life magazine pictures. Those images, it turns out, were permanent: fire hoses turned on in the South; bombs mushrooming above an Asian jungle. And Biafran babies. Sitting in the dirt, stomachs distended, enormous eyes indifferent to the buzzing flies.




It was the Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-70, that created those images. Yet, until I read this book, I couldn't tell you what it was all about. Now I know. Or think I do.

It began with British rule, as these things often do. A rough country was carved out, and named, by Great Britain. Nigeria was formed by three distinct groups or tribes: the Igbo in the southeast, the Hausa in the north, and the Yoruba in the southwest. The Hausa were feudal and Islamic, ruled by emirs. The Igbo, by contrast adopted the British democratic system and Christianized. Britain encouraged these religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences to enhance its colonial grip.

In the 40’s and 50’s, however, Nigeria gained its independence, largely on the efforts of the Igbo and Yoruba. The Hausa, fearing domination by the other Westernized groups, acquiesced only upon the condition that Nigeria remained divided into three distinct regions, the north having the clear majority.

In 1966, an attempted coup by Igbo junior military officers resulted in the execution of major Hausa political leaders. A counter-coup resulted in the massacre of tens of thousands of Igbo. It was then that the Igbo attempted a succession. They would name their new country Biafra. They never had a chance. Like every country everywhere and at every time, the Biafran leaders waged a publicity campaign telling their own people they were winning. At gunpoint, Biafran military stopped their own people from fleeing enemy bombs because they couldn’t allow panic.

That’s when the babies sat in the dirt. That’s when the look of hunger, a look beyond despair was captured.

It was then that Britain increased its military support of Nigeria, and the lingering Biafran resistance was shattered.

_____ _____ _____ _____

Imagine children with arms like toothpicks.
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin.
It was kwashiorkor--difficult word.
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin.


_____ _____ _____ _____

A historical novel should teach history and provide art. Well, this taught much history. And what I am ashamed to say took me over 40 years to finally understand. It made me go to other sources to corroborate what was written here and to answer - What now?

_____ _____ _____ _____

You needn’t imagine. There were photos
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your
Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly.
Then turn round to hold your lover or wife?


_____ _____ _____ _____

I was less thrilled with the characters. Each was fascinating in their own was and important to the story. Yet this was Igbo focused and University set. So the revolution was plotted in dining rooms by insufferable professors, ‘masters’ served by a lesser strata. Yes, sah. Westernized relationships of power plays, self-interest. A failure of understanding and communication.

Two American journalists show up near the end. They smell bad, have their conclusions fully formed before asking a single question. They are overweight, red-headed, cowardly and both named Chuck. Was that necessary? Really?

But there’s no denying the power of the story, and it has its own lingering images.

_____ _____ _____ _____

Their skin had turned the tawny of weak tea
And showed cobwebs of vein and brittle bone;
Naked children laughing, as if the man
Would not take photos and then leave, alone.


_____ _____ _____ _____

The Half of a Yellow Sun comes from the short-lived Biafran flag. The book has a secondary title, a book within the book. It is what the children in the picture are saying. It is what the poem is called:

The World Was Silent When We Died.
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Reading Progress

March 8, 2014 – Started Reading
March 8, 2014 – Shelved
March 15, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Garima (new)

Garima Wonderful review, Tony.


Tony Thank you, Garima.


message 3: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala I remember the Biafra war and like you, Tony, I was too young to grasp the issues. When I read this book, I figured out some of them - your excellent explanation filled in the missing bits.
In spite of the relative privilege of the narrator's family in this story, I felt I was reading an authentic account, and the writing was quite good too.


Tony I agree it sounded authentic, Fionnuala. It was the fictional relationships that annoyed me. Even Igwu, who I really liked, had a difficult time relating. That, and the author's attempt to link the Nigerian Civil War to America's racial conflict. I'm sorry, but they are two very different things. I wavered, and waver still, between 3 and 4 stars.


message 5: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Excellent review. This is on my list.


Anna Thanks for this review Tony. I too wavered between three and four stars. And quite agree that the characters are rather flat.


message 7: by Quo (new)

Quo I lived in East Africa when the Biafran war was raging in Nigeria & even managed to purchase some Biafran postage stamps in Nairobi, most certainly a collector's item. At the time the Igbo were called the "Jesuits of W.Africa", seen by some as intellectually gifted & exceptionally good at business. Tribalism in Africa preceded the coming of Europeans but was exacerbated by colonialism & by religious differences, including the rapid spread of the world of the Koran as well as of the crucifix. Oddly enough, the only African countries that officially recognized Biafra's attempt at independence were countries with many small tribes & no dominant ethnic group that might attempt to secede from its own post-colonial boundaries. Excellent review!


Tony Quo wrote: "I lived in East Africa when the Biafran war was raging in Nigeria & even managed to purchase some Biafran postage stamps in Nairobi, most certainly a collector's item. At the time the Igbo were cal..."

Thank you, Quo. Seems you had a ring-side seat.


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