Friday, August 1, 2008

“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Year of publication: 2006
Genre: historical novel
Setting and time: Nigeria, 1960s
Themes: war, love, colonialism, tribalism vs. modernity, ethnic tensions, national identity

Orange Prize for Fiction, 2007

About the author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is from Abba, in Anambra State, but grew up in the university town of Nsukka ,where she attended primary and secondary schools. She went to university in the USA and now lives between Connecticut and Nigeria. Purple Hibiscus (2003), her first novel, was short-listed for the Orange-Prize for Fiction and won the CommonwealthWriters’ Best First Book Award. Half of a Yellow Sun is her second novel to date.

Plot: In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young beautiful woman, has abandoned her life of privilege to live with her charismatic lover, the professor. The third is Richard, an Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister Kainene. When in 1967 the shocking horror of the Nigerian–Biafra war engulfs them, their lives change forever.

Some thoughts: I loved this novel, it’s going straight to my all-time favourites! I liked everything about it: the characters are developed very well, the story is compelling and the style is superb. It is uniquely African without being ‘burdened’ with traditions and customs that can be difficult to understand for the average western reader. At the same time, it perfectly explains the situation behind the Nigeria-Biafra war without being pedantic. I particularly liked the fact that all characters have their flaws: Olanna is sometimes haughty, Odenigbo too idealistic and Ugwu a bit simple-minded. I loved how they evolved and changed as the story went on. There is no omniscient narrator, which means that you need to make sense of different perspectives by your own. Adichie’s characters are mostly wealthy educated Nigerians who discuss international politics and development economies, as well as poetry and art. There are nonetheless two characters in the novel that are utterly different from everything that Adichie might have experienced in her life: Ugwu and Richard. It must have been a challenge to write about a white Englishman in Nigeria and a poor houseboy, but Adichie achieves her goal. All of them felt so alive that I was thinking of them as if they were real people! The narrative is so compelling that when the characters are engulfed in the civil war you only wish that the war would finish, so that Olanna’s and Odenigbo’s suffering can end.
What makes this book precious is nonetheless the Igbo culture that permeates the story: it was really interesting to read about the reasons that triggers the ethnic conflicts in Western Africa, but also to read about everyday life in Nigeria (habits, fashion, food, education). I look forward to reading Purple Hibiscus!


  1. "half of a yellow sun" is one of the books i've bought last week.
    i will read it as soon as i finish "the railway"...
    seems interesting.

    but i want to know, what's your opinion of "the kite runner"? i look forward to your comments when you finish it.
    and i suggest you to read the second book by khaled hosseini, "a thousand splendid suns": in my opinion, it is far better than the first one (de gustibus) even if probably didn't have the same success...

  2. ah, and i've just seen your "want to read/just bought" list.
    one word only: GOMORRA!

  3. I am reading 'The Kite Runner' mostly because everybody else has, so I wanted to have my opinion. I won't read Federico Moccia only because he's a best-selling novelist, anyway... :-P

    Also, I was running out of books, so I bought the most attractive book in the local supermarket (that and 'Gomorra').

    The publishing industry in Italy sucks, I prefer to read books in their original versions... so I'm forced to buy them on the web if they are written in English. I went to a bookstore today and asked for 'Girls of Riyadh'. Of course they didn't have it, nor any other similar novel... They wanted me to buy a novel set in Syria advertised as 'luxurious and exotic'!
    I miss English bookstores. And second-hand bookshops. And good libraries, with new novels coming in every month... Of couse when I'll be in the UK I'll miss Italian novels, it's a vicious circle. A catch-22 situation, got the literary pun?

  4. if you are still in venice you can try there: you will find arabic fiction (usually translated in italian, but it's fine) and i guess some english versions.
    but it's true that it's difficult to find what you want.
    oh, and i hate when people tell me that they don't like reading books or watching movies in the original language...

    btw, "the kite runner" and "gomorra" might be best sellers, but they are also quality books and at least they make you think: reading these books is a good way to rise awareness, pity there are not so many!
    oh, i've never read anything by moccia either! and by melissa p. neither ;-)

    but the "luxurious and exotic" novel set in syria??? i'm still laughing thinking of it...

    don't go hard with the literary puns please... catch-22?

  5. I'm in Treviso (sad sad place). Yes, in Venice the bookshops are somehow better, only it's too hot these days even to have a short trip... Humid weather sucks!

    I've just finished 'The Kite Runner': I liked it and disliked it at the same time. I think that Hosseini's writing skills can be improved... However, it's good that a novel set in Afghanistan became a best-seller, so that many people know about what kind of a frigging mess Afghanistan is in.

    PS: Catch-22 is a novel written by an American author, Joseph Heller, in the 1960s. Everybody keeps saying that it's a masterpiece, but I haven't read it yet. It's quite of a classic of contemporary American literature. I keep reminding myself: more classics and more Italian novels!

  6. I liked Catch-22... and had similar feelings about "The Kite Runner," though I think I had more of a negative reaction. Good thing I have the blog or I'd never remember all of my responses.

    If this is going on your favorites list, I'm going to have to read it!

  7. You definitely have to read "Half of a Yellow Sun"!
    Are you going through all of the Booker Longlist right now? Good luck!!
    Is Catch-22 set in Italy? I think I've heard somebody mentioning that...

  8. ok, i've never read Catch-22 either...
    i even didn't know this title.

    me too i had some contrasting feelings about "the kite runner": i liked the story (though i think it's kinda "bootlicking" somehow) and i liked the fact that it puts afghanistan in the spotlight (a country which nobody knew before the book... i mean, before the book it was like "afghanistan = taleban"... reality is not so neat and easy!)
    but the way the book is written... mmmhhh, i din't like it really. and in my opinion there are some mistakes in the historical context... but it's a personal opinion.

    i did like the second book by khaled hosseini, "a thousand splendid suns": maybe because i read it in english (for "the kite runner" i've read the italian translation...), but i think the style was more fluent.
    and the story can look a bit stereotyped, but i think it is very real.
    actually the problem is that we don't have other afghan authors of his fame to make comparisons...

    about afghan women i enjoyed "kabul beauty school" by debora rodriguez: not a masterpiece (and i guess it does not pretend to be it), but it is a nice insight on the daily life of women in kabul.
    the author is an american hairdresser who lived in kabul for some years and founded a beauty school there... give it a try if you are bored during this long hot summer!

    p.s.: i'll be writing a post now that i would like you to read...
    i'm looking for help...

  9. This went straight to my list of all time favorites, too, but I have to say that I enjoyed Purple Hibiscus even more once I read that. I hope you'll love it, too.

  10. I really really want to read "Purple Hibiscus"! It's so good when you discover a young writer that you really like, because you can read all of his/her books and then read the new ones as they come out. It happened to me with Zadie Smith and Kiran Desai.

  11. Hei a lot of readers here. you are all great and I had fun reading your comments. I enjoyed reading your review and I agree that the lack of omniscient narrator makes the book more real. Besides, you don't even realise that there is no omniscient narrator. The beginning she narrated it from Ugwu's point of view...then it switches to Richard, then Olanna, Kainene etc. She is really great and I hope to read Purple Hibiscus soon...may be next month. It's funny you read yours exactly a year after I read mine. Both in August. it is funny. As for the other titles, it may take a while...since i am concentrating more on African writers.

  12. So "Half of a Yellow Sun" will be our August book! :-)