Friday, 30 September 2011

It's such a great read, I have to share my thoughts.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's taken me a few days to emerge from the world of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I totally understand why this book is a prize winner.

Post-colonial Africa holds a morbid fascination for me. There are several excellent non-fiction books that describe the inexorable slide of newly independent nations into despotism and chaos. Crises of the day are tattooed into our memories by media coverage, be that accurate or otherwise, but we are often left ignorant of the post-colonial devastation of Africa. Apart from the association of a country called Biafra with acute starvation, I had little memory of Nigeria's independence or Biafra's secession. I was too young (not often that I can say that these days). Genocide was a word that I associated with other places, other times. That was until I read this book. It’s such a powerful piece of writing that I feel I’ve lived through it.

Adichie’s alternating third-person viewpoint lets the reader into the strongly differing characters of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard. Kainene is something of an enigma as we never read from her viewpoint and that suits her character very well.

Ugwu brings his latent intelligence out of the humble village and grows in the relative splendour of Odenigbo’s home. He experiences lust, envy, loyalty and self-loathing as he travels through the story. A boy with a strong moral code, he does commit offences as do all the characters, but his ethics are perhaps the purest.

Richard is self-obsessed, insipid and weak-willed. He’s doomed to always be ineffectual and peripheral. The world goes mad around him as he indulges in the delusion of being an author. It takes a great deal of life tragedy for him to find backbone. Like a fly on the wall, the corruption, murder and starvation pass him by, personally, but he observes everything up close, uncomfortably so.

Olanna gently rejects the opulence of her parents’ corrupt lifestyle and opts for a more altruistic existence with the academic idealist Odenigbo. The small sacrifices that she makes snowball into a cataclysm of starvation as the country tears itself in two and then suffers forcible reunification. Her relationship with Odenigbo mirrors the fate of their homeland.

Kainene is the strongest of them all. As the others lurch from crisis to infidelity, she is the stalwart. Protected from the emotive events by a social awkwardness, she provides a focused ending to the book.

These characters are so real that I could swear I’ve met them. They’re fallible, admirable, alluring and frustrating. Each comes into their own at different times in the story.

The settings tickled my senses. Privileged Nigerian society led me into a web of decadent iniquity. I wandered through the Nigerian gardens, sniffing their blooms, tasted Ugwu’s pepper soup, and indulged in drunken intellectual rants of an evening.

During the food shortages I found myself running to the cupboard and digging out tinned goods that had been at the back of the shelf for ages. I opened a can of mystery meat and enjoyed my corned beef and mustard sandwich with the savour of someone who has been close to starvation for three years. Or was it one hundred pages? I ran a very tight kitchen for that phase of the book.

In addition to brilliant characterisation and aromatic settings, this book also deals excellently with many tricky themes such as the apparent futility of intellectual altruism, mankind’s inherent capacity for cruelty, and racism within racism (black, white, tribal).

Adichie conveys all of this with a seamless power of observation, imparting a storm of emotion and a litany of events without the reader feeling that a story has been told. This is a story that lives.


If you've enjoyed reading Ruby's blog then please sign up to Ruby's News for freebies, advance review copies of upcoming novels and occasional updates. Thanks!


  1. Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, Ruby! (Are you a Kaiser Chiefs fan?)
    I came looking for tigers and the odd elephant or 2, and found you!
    What a splendid review of Adichie's book. I haven't read it, but will do so, because of your review.
    I have spent a lot of time in Nigeria, and met many Igbos whose families had been affected by the dreadful civil war. I shall enjoy going back with Adichie, to a country, that, inspite of many problems, I grew to love.

  2. Arrrgh! Googled with my own post.
    Cybell, I predict a riot with all that wildlife!
    I'm glad you enjoyed the review and I'm sure you'll enjoy the book even more.
    Civil war is a terrible thing, it pulls the carpet out from underneath day-to-day normality and Adichie's book brings that point over very well.

  3. And the film just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this weekend, watch this space for a revival in reading Adichie's work. Just finished reading her latest Americanah this summer and loved that too.