Monday, December 9, 2013

War, what is it good for?

Half of a Yellow Sun
I added Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun to my wish list immediately after finishing Americanah.  The two books are very different (and make clear that Adichie took her own warning about the danger of a single story to heart).  Half of a Yellow Sun is set in 1960s Nigeria during the terrible war for Biafran independence.  We experience it through the perspectives of some very different people - twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, Olanna's servant Ugwu, and Kainene's boyfriend Richard (who is the "white male European" POV in the story).

Adichie is my newest literary crush.  Mainly because of interviews with her like this.  I don't think she actually has a "Heroines who don't annoy me" list, but she seems like the sort of person who has an awesome list of heroines that she loved and I bet every book that those heroines are in is awesome, and I want access to that list.

I don't really know how to write a review that encompasses all that Half of a Yellow Sun is.  In some ways, there are parallels with Americanah.  There are multiple narrators in the book to ensure that we get more than one perspective on what is happening.  Those narrators are from different backgrounds and classes and genders, to ensure that we get as full a view as possible.  But the books are more dissimilar than they are similar.  Americanah is set in both Nigeria and abroad, and it's a story of two people who feel that life has a lot to offer them.  Half of a Yellow Sun is set during a truly horrifying civil war (and one that I, appallingly, didn't have even the vaguest notion of before reading this book) and it is difficult to approach subject matter like that with anything approaching unbridled optimism.

I also felt that the characters in this book were harder to know.  They were just elusive enough that I never quite felt like I fully understood them.  They were always just beyond my grasp.  The only one who felt fairly easy to understand was Richard, the British ex-pat, and I think that is only because he was so very transparent in his feelings about everything (or so he seemed to me - I may have missed a few layers).  But while it was hard for me to know everyone well, everything I do know about them felt so genuine.  Olanna in particular really came alive to me.  I loved that Adichie presented her as an idealist and a radical, but that her upper-class upbringing still came out sometimes when she worried about her daughter spending time with the wrong kind of people.  That is such a realistic depiction of how people struggle between who they want to be and who they are, and it rung so true for me.  I also liked learning about Ugwu's time as a soldier and all the things he did that he later looked back on in horror, and then how he felt when he saw how the war (and the soldiers especially) had ravaged his own family life.

There is so much here that is important to read and to know and to acknowledge.  It is a very heavy book, but it's also brilliant, and there are moments of redemption and kindness and happiness that really shine through the bleakness.  I highly recommend a read - Half of a Yellow Sun is not a book that you will easily forget.


  1. I kind of developed a literary crush on Adichie after I watched her "One Story" talk. It was truly amazing, and I can't wait to read Americanah.

  2. Anonymous12/09/2013

    Excellent review. I love her, too. Thanks for your comparisons of the two books and her rejection of "One Story." Recently I have been pondering "how we know what is true," in a world of many competing truths. Acknowledging diversity seems to require us to ask that question. I think your and her recognition of the multiplicity of truths is essential.

  3. This book is so, so amazing. I still get tears in my eyes whenever I think of the ending. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but just... the not knowing, which is horrible and gut-wrenching and is exactly what so many people who lived through the war experienced.

  4. I have been meaning to read her for ages and it just has not happened. I had this book, but it may have left the house in a purge... I guess I missed all her great talks!

  5. Ah, I've been wanting to read this one ever since I saw its release. Your review only increases that desire. I can't wait to sink my teeth into it.

  6. Having read Americanah first, which book did you prefer?
    And I just love Adichie, I think Purple Hibiscus is my favourite of hers; it's not the most skilled (although it's still very skilled as it's Adichie), but it has the most emotional connection.

    1. I preferred Americanah - I generally like stories about immigrant experiences and loved that Americanah tackled not only race but gender. That said, Half of a Yellow Sun was thoroughly absorbing and if I had read this one first, I'd still want to read everything Adichie has written. Will have to get to Purple Hibiscus!

  7. I loved this and Americanah probably about equally (I think?), but I'll return to Americanah and I don't know that I'll return to Half of a Yellow Sun. I didn't have the same problem that you had with knowing the characters -- I loved them all, instantly, like each chapter would begin and I'd be right away in love with the narrator. I just don't know that I could talk myself into going back and reading about all the brutality of that war, particularly the stuff with Kainene, knowing that it all really happened.

    (I knew about this war, but only because I asked my mother WHICH children were supposed to be starving in Africa, exactly, and she explained about this war and how everybody's parents saw the pictures of the starving Biafran children.)

  8. I cannot wait to read an Adichie book. She's been forever in my TBR and for some reason, I haven't had a chance to read one of her titles yet.

  9. I have read all of Adichie's novels now, and I still think that Half of a Yellow Sun is my favorite. Like you, I knew nothing about the war for Biafran independence and this is the kind of book that just slightly shifted the way I view the entire world. I think Americanah did that, too, but in a different way.


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