Half Of a Yellow Sun written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a heartbreaking, thought provoking novel. There are five main protagonists (although the blurb tells us about three) whose lives intertwine to bring this story to life;
- Alonna: The beautiful twin, educated in London, from a wealthy family in Lagos. She goes off to shack up with her professor lover – much to her parents’ disappointment; they wanted her to date within their elite circle.
- Kainene: She is the not so pretty twin and she knows it. She comes across as someone who couldn’t be bothered about the opinion of others. She smokes, doesn’t smile much and runs the family businesses.
- Richard: The token white guy in the story. He falls in love with Kainene. He is odd and at some point irritatingly needy.
- Odenigbo: He is Alonna’s professor lover. He is a pan-Africanist with loads to say about the state of current affairs in Africa for the black man and especially Nigeria.
- Ugwu (13-year-old): Is the rural boy sent to be Odenigbo’s houseboy. He cooks, cleans and serves guests. Odenigbo takes him to school and has plans to take him to university.
Set in the 1960s, the story begins in the early days of Nigeria’s independence, and then takes us all the way through to the two coups, the three year Biafra war until it ends. Although there is much to be written about the political unrest in Nigeria at that time – the technicalities of war don’t overwhelm the raw emotions experienced by the story’s key players.
For some odd and unexplainable reason I connected and really liked Kainene. There was a certain kind of mysterious aura about her. Probably it was created from the fact that all we know about her is from her Alonna, Richard and for a brief moment Ugwu’s perceptions.
As the twin who lost out in the looks department – it feels like she decided that she won’t put in any effort to gain society’s acceptance. Instead she allowed herself to grow a personality while basking in Alonna’s shadow. And it is when the war is at its worst that one sees how a strong character will survive anything. Kainene is cut throat – says what needs to be said and if she feels the conversation is over – it is over.
She ran the family businesses so well her father praises proudly says that she could’ve been a boy. And those sentiments are some of the fundamental themes Adichie touches on about women’s roles in society in this story. Kainene is probably smarter than most men but the bar in society on brain smarts is men.
She was bold and decisive. And behind all that toughness there was vulnerability; it’s not easily spotted but it is revealed in bits and piecess in the smallest of places itrioarchy ; and not just Fulani people. Death was not only from weapons but. When her sister and Richard betray her – she is initially unforgiving of Alonna and merely just takes away something Richard treasured but they continue their relationship.
One partly gets the feeling that her in ability to forgive Alonna is founded on an unspoken sibling rivalry or tension of sorts. And there is a possibility her ‘forgiving’ Richard could be a power trip because he is a fumbling fool around her. It’s one of those moments that Adichie lets the reader interpret for themselves.
Leaving things to hang is Adichie’s style throughout this book. There are many moments in the book when I had to stop and wonder what the character at that moment was really thinking or feeling.
Did Alonna want a baby because she really wanted one or because she wanted to prove Odenigbo’s mother wrong or get her approval?
Did Odenigbo sleep with his mother’s house girl by mistake or was it an opportunist ‘penis-privilege’ move?
Did Odenigbo have an affair with their refugee camp neighbour?
How will Ugwu take it when he finds out the love of his life didn’t survive the war?
And my big question and most heartbreaking is;
Is Kainene dead or alive?
What Half of a Yellow Sun breaks down the realities and rawness of how these conflicts affect civilians using these five lives. Homes are torn apart, lives are turned upside down and people live on “maybe” – seeing the tomorrow becomes a real luxury. Descriptions of mutilated bodies, the sound of bombs, the violence – as I read, I could hear, taste and touch – it felt all too real.
And as much as this is fiction – the time that the story is set in is not fictitious at all. The Niagerian-Biafran war happened; 6 July 1967 until 15 January 1970. The violent conflict was between Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani people. Adichie said she wrote this book because she wanted to write about love and war. And indeed this book was about love and war; and not just “romantic” love but family, friendships, and ideology.
It is not for the faint hearted. Don’t read it if you are looking for a happy ending. Don’t read it if you are looking for an easy read. It’s not heavy but it is intense. It is an emotional journey – worth taking though!