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History is people
on February 15, 2007
Most of us will have little knowledge of the Biafra war, except, possibly, for the media's haunting images of starving children. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brings her people's world to us in this beautifully crafted, deeply moving, novel. Set in Nigeria during the 1960s, the narrative alternates between the optimistic early years of the decade and the civil war period at the end of it. With her extraordinary storytelling skill, Adichie draws the reader into an absorbing account of fictionalized realities that is impossible to put down - or to forget after the last page is read. With this, her second novel, she confirms her international reputation, established first with Purple Hibiscus, as one of the leading new voices of African literature.
While the war for Biafra's independence, born out of highly complex Nigerian and international political circumstances, provides the essential context for the novel, Adichie's focus is on the personal and private, the struggle of the civilian Igbo population. Her depiction of the horrors of war, the starvation and destruction is realistic. Yet she does not allow these scenes to take over and succeeds in not overwhelming the reader with them. By concentrating on one family and its close circle of friends and neighbours, Adichie creates an intimate portrait of these people's lives during both these critical periods. She paints her characters and their ongoing interactions against the panoramic view of events and environments that influence their lives and challenges their peace and even their existence.
Central to her story are the twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, from a wealthy middleclass Igbo family. The beautiful Olanna leaves Lagos for a university environment to be with her political firebrand lover, the math professor Odenigbo. Kainene, on the other hand, having inherited their father's talents, shines as a confident business woman. English researcher and writer, Richard, friend of Odenigbo, falls under her spell. Adichie explores the interactions sisterly intimacy and love as well as its serious tests with sensitivity and empathy for both. Through them and their surroundings she also touches on the social, political and religious tensions of the time.
The list of main characters wouldn't be complete without Ugwu. Brought into the Odenigbo household as a house boy, he matures from the naive village boy to become a well educated, articulate and caring member of the extended family. In fact, Ugwu acts as a sort of understudy to the narrator, adding a very distinctly personal flair to the description of events and bridging the reality of his own family's rural environment with that of the intellectually stimulating social gatherings at the professor's house.
During the war years, intimacies, friendships and loyalties are put to the test. Will they survive the dramatically changed circumstances that the group finds itself in? Some are evicted from their homes and have to join the endless stream of refugees to find shelter and food for survival. Others move into remote rural areas to escape the fighting. Olanna's efforts to maintain her dignity and to protect her small family come alive on the page. So does Kainene's work with her confidence that she can beat adversity and barriers in her efforts to maintain the supplies for a refugee camp. They don't lose hope or humanity. Odenigbo and Richard have their own demons to tackle. And Ugwu juggles his various roles while attempting to maintain something of a private life for himself.
Half of a Yellow Sun, also the symbol of the short-lived Biafran state, represents some of the best that storytelling has to offer. With strong imagery and beautiful language Adichie has created a masterwork. [Friederike Knabe]