First published in 2006, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a moving story set against the backdrop of Nigeria’s 1960s Civil War,that covers a lot of aspects in life, including politics, history, culture love, poverty, war, hunger and loyalty and companionship among many others.
It is the early 1960s, and Ugwu, a 13 year old boy from a poor village comes to Nsukka to work as a houseboy for a radical University lecturer, Odenigbo. Despite his background, Ugwu is an intelligent boy, and soon his master enrolls him in the University staff school. He works hard, but he feels threatened when Odenigbo’s lover, Olanna moves into the house. Olanna is well educated from a rich family but she abandons her life of privilege to stay with her new exciting lover. Kainene, Olanna’s estranged twin sister is involved in running the family business. She is also in love with Richard, a shy British expatriate who comes to Nigeria to write about Igbo-Ukwu art in Nigeria.
The plot first revolves around these characters, in a period of peace shortly after Nigerian Independence. However when the Igbo people secede in the late 1960s to form an independent state, Biafra, a three year civil war follows. The title of the book is based on one of the symbols of the Biafra flag – the half of a yellow sun, which represented a glorious future for the people of Biafra.
What begins as a calm story turns to horror as friends become enemies in a blink of an eye. The Igbo people are massacred in large numbers, and they flee their homes to refugee camps where starvation, disease and malnutrition create a devastating impact. The war affected all people in the south; like one visitor says:
“When I lost my whole family, every single one, it was as if I had been born all over again. I was a new person because I no longer had family to remind me of what I had been”.
Adichie’s talent is perceptible in the way she writes about events and makes her characters come alive as the story evolves. For a moment I felt like time had been turned back to the 1960s and I was a witness to all that was happening in Nigeria then. As the war rages on, loyalties are put to test. Olanna’s parents offer her and Kainene a safe escape to Britain until the war is over but they decide to stay. Ugwu stays with his master and Olanna, wherever the war sends them. Olanna and Kainene ironically become closer during the war. Both had horrific experiences during the war. Richard, Kainene’s boyfriend, meanwhile, comes across as familiarly sad – wanting to belong to and in Biafra, and never belonging or accepted as belonging.
What captures the reader is the Igbo people’s determination to fight for their cause- the independence of Biafra. They have no arms but clutch sticks carved into the shape of rifles.
As with her other books, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun displays a sophisticated simple way of writing that one can’t get enough of. The book is written with flowing prose, and long after I had finished it, I still felt I wanted to read on and on. It is no wonder that the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has described Adichie as being “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers.”