📖 🇳🇬 #13: A Nigerian modern historical epic

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the forgotten war

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is an exquisite historical epic set during Nigeria’s civil war in the 1960s. Not only did the book win the Women’s Prize for Fiction when it was published in 2007, earlier this month it was voted the best book to have won the Prize in its 25-year history. It’s a book that truly lives up to its reputation; I stayed up much too late gobbling up its 433 pages.

Set during the Nigerian Civil War and the years leading up to it, Half of a Yellow Sun is a character-driven novel centred around fraternal twins from a wealthy Igbo family: Olanna, an “illogically beautiful” woman whose appearance dictates how others treat her; and Kainene, a fearless businesswoman who runs her father’s company in Port Harcourt. While Olanna leaves her family and moves to the university town of Nsukka to begin a relationship with Odenigbo, a radical maths professor and a vehement supporter of Biafran independence, Kainene starts dating Richard, a British journalist and a fanboy of Igbo-Ukwu art.

The book is narrated by Olanna, Richard, and Ugwu, a poor teenager who is employed by Odenigbo to work as his houseboy. Its structure moves in chunks between the early and late 1960s; the beginnings of Biafra declaring itself a republic as well as a homeland for the Igbo people and its collapse, by which point more than a million people, most of them Igbo, had died.

The characters in Half of a Yellow Sun are forced to make countless impossible choices and Adichie is at her best when she explores how each of them navigates their own internal worlds. Olanna is a difficult woman who grapples with her husband’s infidelity and mental health struggles as well as his forbearing relationship with his domineering mother before being forced to flee Nsukka and seek refuge in Umuahia.

The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life.

Ugwu is a cerebral and needy teenager whose grasps for acceptance from Odenigbo, and later Olanna, and whose life is violently interrupted when he is forcibly conscripted into the Biafran army. Richard, an English man who is so taken by his new life that he believes witnessing Biafra’s birth will make him Biafran, is a satirical and believable character whose anglophile houseboy Harrison prides himself on cooking roast beef and rhubarb crumble.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a layered story that echoes and lingers, its plot taking twists and turns with every jump backwards and forwards in time. Adichie’s prose is harrowing, muscled, and mellifluous; she uses detail to capture the horrors of the war with descriptions of the “vaguely familiar clothes on a headless body” and corpses’ “off skin tone – a flat, sallow grey, like a poorly wiped blackboard.”

At its heart Half of a Yellow Sun is a portrait not just of a country ravaged by war, but of five characters forced to make impossible decisions under hellish circumstances. I wish I could read it for the first time again.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (4th Estate, 2007)

More books by Nigerian authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week. I loved both Americanah and My Sister, the Serial Killer.

  • Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

  • An Abundance of Scorpions by Hadiza El-Rufai

  • Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

  • Butterfly Fish by Irenosen Okojie

  • Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

  • Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

  • Ogadinma: Or, Everything Will Be All Right by Ukamaka Olisakwe

  • The Spider King’s Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo

  • On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún from the Literary Society of Nigeria; Denja Abdullahi, former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors; and Katja Kellerer from the Goethe-Institut Nigeria for this issue’s recommendations. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!