Sunday, 9 December 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamamanda Ngozi Adichie was our book group choice for November. The novel came widely recommended as it won Adichie the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, following on from her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which had been short listed for the Orange Prize.

Adichie is certainly a good writer who tells a story well, and it's a good story: one that shows how the ideals one believes in so ardently can wither and die, how love can blind us to faults, betrayal in all its forms and how people cope with loss. On the whole her characters are multi-faceted and 'grow' convincingly as events progress.

Olanna is the central character who, with her estranged twin sister, Kaniene, is an intelligent and well-travelled daughter of a rich Nigerian businessman. They are members of the Christian Igbo tribe of Nigeria. The pliant Olanna falls in love with Odenigbo, an educated man but a blustering idealist, whilst Kaniene falls for Richard, an insecure Englishman.

A key narrator is Ugwu, the houseboy, whose fortunes change when Odenigbo becomes his master; then adapt again when Olanna moves in to live with his master. And finally change very dramatically when war breaks out between the Muslim dominated forces of the north and the Igbo of the south.

None of us knew a great deal about the 1966 coup in Nigeria and the resulting Nigeria-Biafran war before reading this book – all remembered those heartrending photographs of malnourished children however – and so this formed quite a large part of our discussion.

We felt that Adichie's portrayal of the issues that surrounded the war - tribalism, nepotism, bribery and how war brutalizes – were spot on. It's a novel with a strong political message: Adichie admits that she wants to educate her readers about the Biafran war but also that she thinks only Africans should write these stories. Her parents' stories formed the backbone to this novel, which is all very fine, but Adichie doesn't mention that she has lived most of her own life in America. Somehow, that jars with her secondary message.

The characters and the fictional aspects of the story were woven through the true story (Adichie's view of it, anyway) of the violence, the blockades, the ethnic rivalry and the food shortages. She explains that although she fictionalized some places or names she could not let a character be changed by anything that had not actually happened: I agree that's a truthful way to approach such a story.

Adichie says that her main hope was that her novel should have 'emotional truth', an empathic human quality. And on the whole she's succeeded, most of her characters do. Her observance of the roles women are left to play during war are particularly shrewd and her descriptions of passionate love equally well-written.

The fact that the Olanna is an educated, middle class black woman was considered by everyone in the group as a welcome change. The character is believable and her reaction and response to the troubles that eventually befall her are too: initially she was a compliant character but became strong and decisive as a result of her trials.

Odenigbo was also a well rounded and believable character: he begins full of self-belief and conviction but as his ideals collapse, so does he too, into alcoholism and inefficiency. Ugwu, however, changes and grows in stature as the story progresses: he reacts to events and has a canny knack for survival. The role of master and protégé are eventually reversed.

However, not all the groupies thought the character Kainene was convincing and everyone felt that Richard was contrived; stereotypical and considered by all to be the weakest character. Mohammed, another bit player, was also singled out as the token good Muslim character.

Adichie uses time shifts to keep the reader's interest – which some felt worked, others didn't - and devices to keep them guessing, which work less well. One device was the keeping of a child's parentage a mystery: everyone considered this arbitrary (though felt it was cleverly constructed) and for which no-one could see any point. However, the quotations from a book that one character was writing – and the eventual outcome – we all agreed was cleverly done.

Everyone in the book group enjoyed the novel but few of the group found the book riveting; there was a surprising lack of passion for it. Perhaps it was because the book was just too long: most of those who were not able to read it at one sitting found they were not champing at the bit to get back to it. Those of us who read it at one go – I was on holiday so could indulge myself – enjoyed it more.

But there was real interest in the historical setting of the novel and in Adichie's plea that the atrocities of this war should not be forgotten, "May we always remember": we've heard this before, but it's none the less applicable.

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