The Short Version: After Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, it entered a period of massive change. Intellectuals gathered to debate the future of the country – and a secessionary idea began: the state of Biafra, splitting off from Nigeria. So began the horrible civil war that lasted until 1970 and tore the country to pieces. Adichie’s book follows three Biafrans (Olanna, Ugwu, and the English ex-pat Richard) through the tumultuous decade and into the uncertain future.
The Review: The BBC Culture poll of earlier this year, presenting the “best books of the 21st Century so far”, was of great interest to my BookClub. We’d all read a large majority of the books and were intrigued by our gaps – but we were particularly intrigued by the fact that only one author made it into the list twice: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. One of our members had already read and recommended Americanah, so we picked Half of a Yellow Sun for our February/March book on the merits of this list alone. I haven’t read any Adichie previously, although Americanah is on my list and I’ve seen the “we are all feminists” TEDTalk and she was on Beyoncé’s album… so I’m aware of her, culturally.
I say all of this because I think it helps to present the expectations I had going into the novel. Even the fact that the book cracked the top ten of this prestigious list, arbitrary though it may be, is enough to set up a certain kind of expectation: that the book would be transcendent in the way Oscar Wao and Wolf Hall and The Corrections had been.
Expectations can be a curse.
There’s a certain subset of literary fiction that I (upper-middle-class white male of suburban upbringing) like to classify as the “high school English class novel about another culture.” Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies is a great example: I knew nothing about the DR, let alone Trujillo’s dictatorship, and I learned a great deal while also reading a good-if-not-particularly-tremendous novel. Half of a Yellow Sun feels like exactly that sort of book – I’d even wager that Rob Henry has it on a list for his AP English class at Springfield High School, assuming he’s still teaching that class/they haven’t gotten rid of AP English for some idiotic reason. I knew nothing about the history of Nigeria going into the book, let alone the specifics of the Biafran secession and ensuing civil war. We’re familiar – and by we, I mean average educated intelligent white Americans – to some extent with the genocides in Rwanda, the conflicts in Somalia, certainly apartheid in South Africa – but here was something unknown and, as such, a learning opportunity.
But Adichie doesn’t want to make this educational; she wants to make it an enjoyable read. There is, as my group pointed out, a sense of shared humanity here: yes, there are cultural differences but at the end of the day, the scenes in the early chapters (“The Early 60s”, they’re titled) could be transposed across socio-ethnic lines with ease. There’s Ugwu, the young boy who comes to work in Odenigbo’s house and strives to learn even as he strives to please. Odenigbo and his revolutionary set (Kainene’s constant refrain of calling him “the revolutionary lover” was one of my favorite lines from the book) are the sort of educated-if-deluded intellectuals you might find anywhere in the world. His courtship of Olanna – in fact, both Olanna and Kainene’s relationships with their respective gentlemen – will ring true to anyone who has dated somebody outside of exactly who your parents were hoping for. There is a vibrant sense of life to these early chapters and whie the writing did not wow me, it was also still deeply enjoyable.
And then the story leaps forward, into the late 60s and the situation has deteriorated in every sense. Genocide and war are upon them, not to mention personal disintegrations and betrayals – and yet I was less engaged than I’d been before. I don’t know how to explain it and it feels, to some extent, like a personal failing far more than any failing on the part of the author. The characters seemed to be churning through the same moments over and over again: Odenigbo’s descent into alcohol and self-loathing, Olanna’s strength in the face of adversity, Ugwu’s inevitable conscription… it all feels at arm’s length for some reason. I couldn’t get into it the way I’d engaged with the earlier chapters. Perhaps it was because of the ‘mystery’ of what happened between the early and late 60s (the affairs, the baby, etc) – a mystery that I don’t think should’ve been a mystery but, instead, just a straight narrative. I wanted to follow these characters through this time, not let the time serve as a backdrop to these characters.
But this is something particular about me – and it’s an opinion that my BookClub did not share. I find that I’m even struggling to say too much more about the book at all; I find it already slipping from my mind and that feels unfair, to the author and the characters and the text… but it is, perhaps, just the roll of the dice on this one.
Rating: 3 out of 5. I’m squarely ambivalent. The writing was lovely and the early sections quite delightful – but I found myself struggling to keep myself turning the pages as the book progressed. It wasn’t as harrowing as it could (should?) have been, nor was it in any way bad writing or uninteresting. I just… couldn’t get into it. Curse of the wrong time, perhaps? All I know: I’m going to read Americanah post-haste to find out.