Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It is not often that a novel comes to hand that has been prized, praised and pre-inflated. Half of a Yellow Sun was in that category when I opened it and began to read. And I was captivated immediately. I read the first hundred pages at a pace, delighting in the ease with which the Chimanada Ngozi Adichie used language to draw me into the middle-class clique centred on the University of Nsukka which provides the core characters of her book. Their infidelities, their inconsistencies, their desire, despite the servants, for equality and freedom are symptomatic of their time. The dissimilar twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, one imagines will provide a vehicle for parallel and different lives, providing contrast and metaphor, and I eagerly awaited their stories to unfold.
The book’s sections alternate between the early and late 1960s, the latter period in Nigeria, of course, being the Biafran War. And, yes, the characters live through the war, and their lives and their natures, and along with them their country, are transformed by it. Perhaps even their own identity is redrawn, especially once the promise of a recognised nationality is promised and then denied. Eventually there are vivid scenes of the war’s brutality, its double standards, its compromises, its cynicism, its racism and its starvation. The images are graphic and vivid, unforgettable even, and the ability of war to undermine utterly and profoundly any assumption that an individual might harbour about an imagined future is movingly portrayed.
So why then was I so disappointed with the book? All I can offer, I’m afraid, is that eventually I found it shallow. Its apparent concentration on the domestic lives of the characters undermined their credibility as members of an intellectual elite and rendered them two (or perhaps even one) dimensional. Chimanada Ngozi Adichie carefully tells us that Odenigbo is a mathematician and in love with his subject. He covets his personal library, which he loses in the war and then has replaced by a benefactor. But in my experience, mathematicians are passionate people – and are usually passionate about mathematics. No mathematician I have ever met avoids all mention of personal academic interests in social settings as scrupulously as Odenigbo. I didn’t want the novel to become a textbook, but if characters were ballet dancers, surely we would expect to hear of the roles they had danced and the music that had moved them. Of Odenigbo’s academic character we hear nothing. Why is he therefore endowed with knowledge and interest that is never explored? Perhaps he only exists as a character to interact with the twin sisters.
And the problem is repeated with Richard Churchill who, we are told is an Igbo-speaking English radical. I knew a lot of sixties radicals and they were never slow to offer an opinion or, indeed, place themselves squarely in a space on the ideological chessboard. In Half of a Yellow Sun, we never learn if Richard is a Marxist, Maoist, Leninist or Trot. He never mentions Castro or Ho Chi Minh. He doesn’t appear to have any position on capitalism, society, business, the Third World, South Africa, Central America or even Viet Nam. I found myself wondering which sixties decade saw his radicalisation. When Chimanada Ngozi Adichie tells us that he travels to Lagos to attend a function in honour of the state funeral of Winston Churchill (perhaps no relation), I began to wonder if he was an early- (or indeed late) born radical Tory. I have been an expatriate myself, so I can forgive him his attendance of the function, but not his total silence on the issues of the day.
This becomes especially problematic when both Britain and the Soviet Union are mentioned as assisting the Federal Forces in the destruction of secessionist Biafra. What sixties radical, given the inevitability of his assumption of a Cold War bifurcated paradigm to underpin his ideological position, would not have pondered and discussed this at length, even in bed?
Eventually we also have to read along with continued adulation of Ojukwu. His Excellency might even be the Great Helmsman, himself, given that his free-thinking minions seem unable to mention a criticism of an historical character who eventually fled to Ivory Coast to save his skin and live his life in relative comfort after leaving millions of his own people dead. Perhaps he had to be preserved to fight another day, as he eventually did, if in a different way, but surely no sixties radical would have left his role unquestioned. It doesn’t ring true, and an opportunity to develop a character like Richard through his own and inevitable disillusion was ignored.
And then we are presented with a pair of American journalists that the radical Richard has to greet and service in his role as a promoter of the Biafran cause. They are both called Charles and apparently have the same nickname, Chuck – which surely should have been Charlie of the “right” variety to enhance the farce. They are simply not credible. We can probably accept as deadly accurate that the majority of Americans neither knew where Biafra was nor cared a jot about its plight, since the attentions of the politicised were focused elsewhere at the time. But the presentation of a pair of foreign correspondents as crass as these is surely incredible, as is, equally, Richard’s apparent patience in dealing with them.
I did also become mildly annoyed at what became quite extensive use of Igbo words when they seemed to offer no extra flavour, meaning or understanding. I have no problem with the use of local terms to enhance a feeling of place and sound, but their over use tends to obfuscate. We really wanted to know what these people thought, but we were never told.
So what are we left with? Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautifully written, beautifully composed domestic tale of fidelity, infidelity, loyalty and opportunism. The contrast between the characters’ and therefore the nation’s lives at the start and the end of the decade is engaging. But because their psyches are never really explored, we never understand any motives or, therefore, any consequences. Reading Half of a Yellow Sun was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which, with hindsight, I would have foregone.
Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, UK, now living on Spain’s Costa Blanca
Author of Mission, an African novel set in Kenya
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