Saturday, May 2, 2009

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chiamanda Ngozie Adichie

I just finished the tremendously sad and deeply moving Half of a Yellow Sun. Set in Nigeria in the 1960's this book opened my eyes to the violence that permeated that nation post Colonialism, with ethnic tensions within Nigeria resulting in two military coups, massacres and then all out Civil War when the Eastern area of the country declared themselves a separate nation (Biafra).

Against this backdrop of unrest the novel follows the stories of three intertwined characters - one a poor uneducated village boy (Ugwu) who goes to work for a University Professor as his servant - and who undergoes an intellectual and sexual awakening as he grows-up under his employee - the second the beautiful daughter of a new monied prominent family (Olanna) who falls in love with the Professor and moves into his home, and the third an Englishman and writer (Richard) who begins a relationship with the female protagonists twin sister.

The book chops and changes between the early sixties, when things were relatively prosperous but Nigeria was still trying to form its identity post British rule, and the late sixties, when the country was at war. It also moves between the points of view of each of the three main characters. Their stories are always intertwined and mostly this conceit works. Interest is deftly sustained throughout the book and it successfully mines the themes of trust, love, hate, family, intellectualism, ethnicity and violence with remarkable honesty. One element of the book that strikes me as particularly inspired is Adichie's depiction of starvation. Food is an important element of the chronologically early parts of the narrative, with wonderful descriptions of food and cooking, which are then contrasted so well with the deprivation that the characters suffer once the Civil War was in full flight. While Nigeria still prospered, the Biafran's were starving.

Adichie is only a couple of years older than me (sigh) and her book is full of wisdom that belies her years. A beautiful, moving novel about the experiences that pull us apart and the ties that bind us as well as an important fictional record of a conflict - and an Africa - that Adichie feels it is vital we don't forget.

Adichie is a guest at the Sydney Writers' Festival this month and I can't wait to go and hear her speak.

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