Today is November 3rd, time for members of Patry Francis's Third Day Book Club to blog about Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The book is an extraordinary book in many ways. It is set in the late 1960s when a part of southeastern Nigeria tried to secede to form its own country, the state of Biafra. The rebellion was crushed by January, 1970, but not before millions of people died, mostly because of illnesses and starvation.
Biafra was more than a name of some place far away to me in the late 1960s because our small college, which had a robust international student presence, had several Biafran women studying there. I believe the student newspaper, on which I worked, even had an article about Biafra. But this book is another example of fiction being able to convey a better sense of the "truth," than a mere recitation of the facts. Reading the "fact" that millions of people died of starvation in Biafra does not convey the horror of what happened like reading a book in which you, the reader, become intimately acquainted with an upper middle class, educated, family that goes over the course of several years, from having Western-style dinner parties to watching helplessly as the stomach of their little child becomes distended from malnutrition.
The story is essentially about twin sisters, Olanna, and Kainene, whose father is a corrupt businessman and who go from a life of privilege to a life in which they are fighting for their very survival. The horror of the story, for people like me and most readers of blogs, is in realizing that this could happen to us. How long after a terrorist attack that shut down the electrical grid in the United States before we would be fighting for fried lizards?
And yet, despite the horrors depicted in the book, this is not, overall, a depressing book that is hard to read. The characters maintain a humanity, even when some of them, like Ugwu, the houseboy, commit unspeakable crimes. And there is a basic sense of optimism in the future that is conveyed throughout the book. Although much of the optimism is misguided because even intelligent people believe their leaders' propaganda that they are winning the war, even when they are losing, the overall tone of the book is upbeat, not bleak, like for example, George Orwell's 1984, or Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, both of which were books I wish I had not read. And this is not because everything turns out fine for all of the main characters in the end. They do not.
On the dust jacket, Joyce Carol Oates compares this book and its author, Adichie, to Chinua Achebe, another Nigerian writer, and his book, Things Fall Apart, which is sometimes called the "seminal African novel in English." The time depicted by Achebe is the immediate post-colonial era while Half of a Yellow Sun takes place 20 years later after Nigeria has had some experience governing itself. Half of a Yellow Sun is a logical successor to Achebe's book in that it certainly depicts how things have fallen apart. And yet, there is a sense of hope in Adiche's book that I did not get in Achebe's.
My main criticism of the book is that the writing is not always smooth. Perhaps I got spoiled after recently reading Jeffrey Euginedes tour de force, Middlesex. Euginedes writes seamlessly, shifting time and perspective clearly, while I found myself getting confused at times by Adiche, going on for a number of pages before I finally figured out that we were in a retrospective.
Although the writing style leaves something to be desired, the shortcomings of Half of a Yellow Sun, are more than compensated for by the story, which, after all, is why we read fiction. I gave the book four out of five stars.
For other perspectives on this book, follow the link to Simply Wait, which will have links to about 20 bloggers who have read this book and are reviewing it today.