In a way, Half of a Yellow Sun is a familiar story. Rivers of blood flow in a nation torn apart by religious strife. Different ethnic groups battle for control of the government and (more importantly) the oil. Foreign powers meddle from the outside, aiming for a government that will look out for their interests, as roadside bombs detonate, as the people starve, as children die from preventable diseases. The formerly colonized people bristle inside a nation with artificial boundaries, created without any regard to peoples’ languages or cultures.
No, this book isn’t set in the present. It’s not about Iraq or Palestine. Instead, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes us back 40 years to witness the birth and death of a nation-Biafra Located in eastern Nigeria, it only existed for about three years. While reading this book, I felt embarrassed because I knew nothing about Biafra. A quick Google search told me that not many people do. That’s infuriating when you take into account that about a million people died in the war for Biafran independence (or in the Nigerian Civil War, depending on how you want to frame it). A million people, and I had no idea it even happened. No wonder one of the novel’s characters writes a book called “The World Was Silent When We Died.”
The book focuses on twin sisters-Kainene and Olanna. Members of an elite family, they fall in love with two very different men. Olanna falls for Odenigbo, a revolutionary professor who loves to throw soirees where his guests debate the merits of pan-Africanism. Kainene chooses Richard, a bashful English journalist, perpetually working on his book. They’re all incredibly privileged, and the onslaught of a war (which they supported) throws their comfortable lives into disarray, along with Ugwo, a servant who comes from a very different world.
Adichie takes her time with this book, introducing the war more than a hundred pages in, giving us time to get to know her characters, so we can see how much the violence changes them. Some rise to the occasion, some do monstrous things, some hide out in a bottle of whiskey until Nigeria brings Biafra back into the fold. None of them come back unscathed.
This book might not be a masterpiece, but it’s got some of the most honest writing about the realities of war that I’ve ever read. Hungry children don’t have the energy to catch lizards. Weddings end early because of bombings. Parents offer their daughters to soldiers. On a crowded train, a shell-shocked woman clutches her daughter’s head in a basket. A girl’s stomach begins to swell and a character can’t tell if its pregnancy or malnutrition. Talk about freedom and honor and glory starts to taper off when the first bomb falls. Sobering, and sadly relevant, Half of a Yellow Sun is well worth the read.