Friday, 15 January 2016

Half of a Yellow Sun

It feels like January is whizzing past with a rustling of hot wind ringing in my ears. The newness of the year and all its demands has kept me rather busy of late. But in that time, somehow, there have been pauses well spent with Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a book that you can feel viscerally, in your gut. Gracefully devastating, tragically human, humorously hopeless, it makes its mark on the postcolonial literary landscape.

It is set in the 60s, in a newly independent Nigeria bearing the deep tribal scars of colonial rule, and tells the story of Biafra, a country that existed for three years from 1967 to 1970 and represented the nationalist aspirations of the Igbo people. The novel centers around the Biafran war (or Nigerian civil war as it's also known) which gave the world the tragic images of starvation as two million people starved to death due to Nigerian blockades. It is deeply disturbing to think of starvation being viewed as a legitimate weapon in war.

As much as the story is about this segment of Nigerian history, it is also about three characters whose lives intersect: Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, who works as a houseboy for a university lecturer; Olanna, a young, beautiful woman who rejects her wealthy parents' life of luxury in Lagos to live with her revolutionary lover (the university lecturer); and Richard, a shy Englishman who falls in love with Olanna's enigmatic twin sister. It is the force of these characters that drives the story forward, and you follow, even if you sometimes don't want to go, because you must find out what happens to them. And this curiosity is not simply for how they survive the war, but how they live: how circumstances shape and change them and their relationships with each other. Of this emotional truth that shines through the ground of history, Adichie states, "If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally keen to be true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it."

I think what was so tragic about it was the sense of pointlessness - of a dream that existed for three years in the grotesque and brutal form of war, and yet, remained one that people still, somehow, had the heart to believe in. Of that, Adichie states, "the wonderfully restrained sense of deep disappointment reminded me of how similar the histories of many African countries are, how passionately people believed in ideas that would eventually disappoint them, in people that would betray them, in futures that would elude them."

While there's something horribly familiar about the postcolonial tragedies that litter Africa, Adichie's novel doesn't completely fit that label. In the heartache, there is humour, in the devastation, pockets of resilience. It was one of those reads where I felt devastated to turn the last page and know that it was over.


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