I’ve come to Chimamanda quite late in the day, having had my interest piqued by a glowing recommendation from a respected friend and the shortlisting of Americanah for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction. Then I watched Chimamanda’s TED talk about ‘the danger of a single story’ and at that point if I didn’t have a healthy quota of girl-love for the woman, well, what kind of woman would I be?
Half of a Yellow Sun won the Orange Prize for Fiction, the predecessor of the Bailey’s prize, and I can see why. Telling the story of the Nigerian-Biafran war from the perspective of a range of characters, this is a sweeping, epic story which has all the hallmarks of a future classic. The primary focus is on Olanna, a beautiful woman from a wealthy family who chooses to swop her decadent lifestyle for an idealistic life with her academic, ‘revolutionary’ lover Odenigbo. Odenigbo’s houseboy, Ugwu, is also a key character, having come from his small village to work for Odenigbo and he provides an interesting perspective on Olanna and Odenigbo’s life, bridging the gap between their somewhat protected academic lifestyle and the realities of village life in Nigeria. Olanna’s twin, Kainene (my favourite character) provides a different perspective. Not blessed with Olanna’s beauty, Kainene carves her own path, taking the role as ‘son’ to the boy her parents never had and taking the industrialist reigns. Then there is Richard Churchill, a writer from Britain who falls in love with Kainene and the Igbo people and culture. Richard, who apparently was based in part on the very real Frederick Forsythe, provides an interesting contrast and a different perspective both to the events that unfold and the ever-present legacy of colonialism on Nigeria.
Where the strength in Half of a Yellow Sun lies is in its characterisation. All of the key characters, with perhaps the exception of Richard who is more sketchily drawn, come across as deeply authentic and it is easy to be drawn into their lives. Olanna, despite her ideals, remains a snob and perhaps represents that kind of idealism which lacks authenticity. Yet she is strong, she suffers and it is hard not to love her. Kainene, on the other hand, is truly strong, she is unforgiving and independent and determined to carve her own path. In a way Kainene is the pragmatist, the one who will do whatever it takes to succeed. Odenigbo is a revolutionary on paper, he has grand ideas and a keen vision, but yet when it comes to the crunch he lacks the courage of his convictions. Ugwu is the underestimated one. Through Ugwu we learn the value of love, and the keenness of observations that come from an unexpected source.
It is a tragic book, the story of the Nigerian-Biafran war in which one million Biafran people died is a terrible one. Though the eyes of the characters we both see and feel these atrocities. Olanna is caught up in the massacre at Kano which was the catalyst for independence for the Igbo people. Here Olanna flees from the massacre:
‘Olanna sat on the floor of the train with her knees drawn up to her chest and the warm, sweaty pressure of bodies around her. Outside the train, people were strapped to the coaches and some stood on the steps holding on to the railings. She had heard muted shouts when a man fell off. The train was a mass of loosely held metal, the rise unsteady as if the rails were crossed by speed bumps, and each time it jolted, Olanna was thrown against the woman next to her, against something on the woman’s lap, a big bowl, a calabash. The woman’s wrapper was dotted with splotchy stains that looked like blood, but Olanna was not sure.[...]
[...] A liquid – urine – was spreading on the floor of the train. Olanna felt it coldly soaking into her dress. The woman with the calabash nudged her, then motioned to some other people close by. ‘Bianu, come,’ she said. ‘Come and take a look.’
She opened the calabash.
‘Take a look,’ she said again.
Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl’s head with the ashy-grey skin and the plaited hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed.
The woman closed the calabash. ‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair.’
There is such a lot in Half of a Yellow Sun that there is no way for me to do it justice here. It is a sweeping and complex book, it is tragic and heart-warming, it is funny and frustrating. It is an epic view of a terrible war that was, perhaps, the inevitable result of colonialist policies and the desire for oil and whose events we will no doubt see repeating themselves over the course of the forthcoming years. What Chimamanda shows us is not just the events, the dry history of it, but the lives of the people burned by it. This is the source of its power.
Read it. It is the only advice I can give. You won’t be disappointed.
Half of a Yellow Sun receives a heart-broken 10 out of 10 Biis.