Based in the sixties during the Nigerian Civil War, this is one of those few books that leave you staring at the final page, not wanting to believe that it's all over. I was completely consumed by this novel and have been taking every opportunity to discuss it with others since finishing it.
The novel tackles a delicate subject, the lead up to and the course of Nigeria's Biafra War in the 1960's. It is told in a very readable and accessible way. The events unfold through the eyes of three central characters, who are swept along in the chaos of civil war. They are forced together and separated in unexpected ways throughout the war, each witnessing events that affect them deeply.
Adichie writes beautifully, with strong imagery and fitting words. At times you are given the character's most intimate and private thoughts, and the way these are described makes the reader feel a part of the drama. The characters are so well rounded and realistic, that you can relate and sympathise with every single one of them at some point in the novel. The relationships between Olanna and Odenigbo; Olanna and Kainene; Kainene and Richard; Odenigbo and his group of intellectuals all develop or deteriorate throughout the events that shape the novel. Ugwu's loyalty remains throughout his dabble with base brutality. The strong contrasts in their lives are shown through these events, the ease with which life was lived before the war, the fear, panic and inhumane responses that ensued amongst both the rich and the poor. Furthermore, the inaction of the international community is something that is treated delicately yet commented on.
Interwoven in the main plot are other important themes such as the necessity and ineffectiveness of emergency relief aid, for the innocent people displaced by war and through corruption and misappropriation. The use of child soldiers and the horrors they are forced to endure is also treated in the novel, making it particularly realistic yet raw. The role of religion in a war, wartime propaganda, how tribal loyalties and the political elite can tear a country apart are subjects all written about with care. Something that particularly stood out for me, was how the way in which the Western world perceives Africa and the realities of war. There is a particular scene that stands out, where two American reporters are more interested in the death of one white journalist than they are of one thousand local, black civilians. This irony comments on how all the aid and media coverage that the Western world use to show their sympathies are just political statements rather than genuine heartfelt, and how at the end of the day we are all human, yet across borders, divides and governments, we are all divided.
The structure of the novel worked well, creating intrigue and suspense throughout. It was gripping from start to finish and even though it is quite a harrowing and distressing account of war, it speaks volumes. The author's passion and dedication for her country is shown throughout, through the vivid descriptions as well as through the use of authorial intrusion. The way that traditional food and traditions are described, as well as how people are portrayed as resilient and loyal, leave you with a feeling that you have been to Nigeria yourself.
‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ is the symbol of the short-lived Biafran state. Adichie has created a masterpiece in this novel. Storytelling at its best, it is a major contribution to African literature and highly recommended.