Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Worthy, but soapy and strangely unmoving…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When inter-ethnic warfare in Nigeria leads to the Igbo breaking away to form their own short-lived nation of Biafra, the five main characters in the book find themselves caught up in the slaughter and mass starvation that results. Olanna and Kainene are twins, the privileged daughters of a wealthy businessman, who have both returned to Nigeria after being educated in English universities. Olanna is in love with Odenigbo, an academic with strong nationalist and revolutionary leanings. Kainene falls for Richard, a white man who is failing to write the book he came to Nigeria to research, and whose main purpose is to personify white guilt. Then there’s Ugwu, servant to Odenigbo and Olanna – his purpose appears to be to show how devoted the servant class is to the privileged who sit around pontificating while their servants do all the work of cooking, cleaning and bringing up their children for them, while having to beg for an occasional day off to visit their families.

This one took me nearly two months to read, largely because I found it almost completely flat in tone despite the human tragedy it describes. I learned a good deal about the background to the Biafran War, which happened when I was far too young to understand it but still registered with me and all my generation because of the horrific pictures of starving children that were shown on the news night after night for many months. I also learned a lot about the life of the privileged class in Nigeria – those with a conflicted relationship with their colonial past, adopting British education, the English language and the Christian religion while despising the colonisers who brought these things to their country. Adichie manages to be relatively even-handed – whenever she has one of her characters blame the British for all their woes, she tends to have another at least hint at the point that not all the atrocities Africans carry out against each other can be blamed on colonisation, since inter-ethnic hatreds and massacres long predated colonisation.

Biafran Flag

In this case it is the Igbo who are presented as the persecuted – the same ethnic group as Chinua Achebe writes about in Things Fall Apart, a book which I feel has clearly influenced Achebe’s style. The attempt at a degree of even-handedness struck me in both, as did the method of telling the political story through the personal lives of a small group of characters. In both, that style left me rather disappointed since I am always more interested in the larger political picture than in the domestic arena, but that’s simply a subjective preference. I felt I learned far more about how the Biafrans lived – the food they ate, the way they cooked, the superstitions of the uneducated “bush people”, the marriage customs, etc. – than I did about why there was such historical animosity between the northern Nigerians and the Igbo, which personally would have interested me more. On an intellectual level, however, I feel it’s admirable that Adichie chose not to devote her book to filling in the ignorance of Westerners, but instead assumed her readership would have enough background knowledge – like Achebe’s, this is a tale told by an African primarily for Africans, and as such I preferred it hugely to Americanah, which I felt was another in the long string of books written by African and Asian ex-pats mainly to pander to the white-guilt virtue-signalling of the Western English-speaking world.

Although I found all of the descriptions of life before and during the war interesting, the main problem of the book for me was that I didn’t care much about any of the characters. Just as I find annoying British books that concentrate on the woes of the privileged class, and especially on the hardships of writers, so I found it here too. Adichie is clearly writing about the class she inhabits – academics, politically-minded, wealthy enough to have servants – and I found her largely uncritical of her own class, and rather unintentionally demeaning towards the less privileged – the servants and the people without access to a British University education, many without even the right to basic schooling.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is far more interested in romantic relationships than I am, and the bed-hopping of her main characters occasionally gave me the feeling I had drifted into an episode of Dallas or Dynasty by mistake. I was also a little taken aback, given Adichie’s reputation as a feminist icon, that it appeared that the men’s infidelities seemed to be more easily forgiven than the women’s, even by the women. (I don’t think she’s wrong in this – it just surprised me that she somehow didn’t seem to highlight it as an issue.) But what surprised me even more, and left a distinctly unpleasant taste, was when she appeared to be trying to excuse and forgive a character who participated in a gang-rape of a young girl during the war. I think she was perhaps suggesting that war coarsens us all and makes us behave out of character, and I’m sure that’s true. But it doesn’t make it forgivable, and this feminist says that women have to stop helping men to justify or excuse rape in war. There is no justification, and I was sorry that that particular character was clearly supposed to have at least as much of my sympathy as the girl he raped.

So overall, a mixed reaction from me. I’m glad to have read it, I feel I learned a considerable amount about the culture of the privileged class of the Igbo and the short-lived Biafran nation, but I can’t in truth say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it.

Book 7 of 12

(Sorry for disappearing. I had a little health issue – nothing serious, but it left me kinda wabbit*. I hope to be back in action properly soonish.

*Wabbit: Scottish word meaning listless, lethargic, tired, and overcome with a desire to lie in bed eating chocolate. Though that last part may be just me.)

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46 thoughts on “Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  1. This appeals to me, but I enjoy the personal stories while you prefer the bigger political picture.
    Glad you’re back, and hope you’re feeling better. Wabbit is a wonderfully descriptive word.
    Sandra and I compared notes and thought you’d been distracted by the Olympics. Were you up to watching the magnificent feats?

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    • I’d be interested to hear what you thought of it, if you ever get around to reading it. Somehow her characters never make me care about them, but most people seem to have loved this one.
      Thank you – I’m fine now, just waiting for my natural exuberance to return! 😉 I didn’t watch much of the Olympics, but I followed the results and saw most of the highlights. Didn’t we both do well?? It’s so relaxing sitting on the couch eating snacks and watching other people cycle madly around velodromes…

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      • I haven’t read much set in Africa and am slightly embarrassed to admit your that review taught me where the name Biafra came from! I think I’d always imagined it was some sort of slur that wasn’t used any more.
        Glad you’re on the mend. As for the Olympics, they’ll be on us again before we even know it. Can you figure out how races in the velodromes actually work? I’ve got no idea, despite HWEAoOLs explaining the rules (or perhaps because of him explaining it).

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  2. Sorry to hear that you were poorly. I hope you’re on the mend! I started to read this in Jan 2020, then… Covid. I thought I would not bear a genocide on top of a pandemic, so I quit. (I sure wish I could have quit the pandemic and chosen the book instead)

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    • Thank you – yes, I’m fine now, just waiting for my energy levels to return to normal! Haha, yes, I’d rather read a dystopian novel than live in one! I’m sure the pandemic is still affecting my reading – I feel I’ve struggled to get through a lot of books I’d normally have enjoyed more.

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  3. Glad to see you back and hope your strength picks up soon, and that you do what’s good for you until it does. After your review, I’ll definitely have to be in the mood for this one – it is hard to stay motivated, even for worthy causes, if the story lags and the characters don’t engage the reader.

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    • Thank you – I’m fine now, just waiting for my energy levels to pick up! It might just be that her style doesn’t work for me – most people seemed to love this one. But somehow her characters never make me care about them, and when a book is centred on character that becomes a problem.

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  4. Delighted that you’re ok, FF, and hope that the wabbit passes soon. Other than the chocolate eating of course, which I accept is a lifelong habit for you.) I’m also selfishly pleased that your experience of this one matched mine. Wish I’d thought of that strapline! I did learn a lot and I’m glad to have read it but there was so much hype about this book and yet I was, like you, left unmoved. I’ve felt that I must have missed something in my reading of it but clearly not. For me it was a springboard into realsing there is so much african literature out there, of which I’ve still barely scratched the surface. Speaking of springboards, I hope your health issue didn’t prevent you from enjoying Tom Daley … I’m referring to his knitting of course 🧶😉

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    • Thanks, Sandra – the wabbit is on the wun! 😉 There’s something about her style that I find curiously emotionless. Her characters went through all kinds of things that should have made me feel for them, but I simply didn’t. I’d like to read more books by Africans for Africans. I’m very tired of reading “immigrant experience” books from African and Asian authors – I want to hear from the ones who’ve stayed. Must search some out! Haha – his knitting was very impressive, wasn’t it? His diving wasn’t too bad either… 😉 Didn’t we do well?

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  5. Glad to see you back although sorry to hear you were unwell. I think I’ll give this one a miss – between this and Americanah it sounds like maybe Adichie is not for me.

    If you want a different look at class in Nigeria that does get a bit more into some of those issues around privilege, can I recommend Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo? I read it last year and the way it looked at great wealth and great poverty coexisting alongside each other (and corruption in Nigerian politics) has really stayed with me. She’s a very young writer and it’s not a completely polished novel, but I was really impressed by it! Though it admittedly still sticks to the personal and domestic for the first part of the book.

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    • Thank you! Yes, I think Adichie’s style just doesn’t work for me – I never seem to care about her characters even when they’re going through things that should make me care. Welcome to Lagos sounds great – thanks for the rec! I don’t mind a book having some of the personal in it – in fact, I’d be complaining just as much if there was none. It’s the balance that matters, and I felt Adichie spent too much time on relationship stuff, slowing the story down to a crawl, and I’d have been happier if she’d told me more about the political background than 50 ways to cook rice… 😉

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  6. So glad you’re back, FictionFan! We’ve missed you. As for the book…I don’t know very much about the Biafrian war , either, and I would be interested in how it happened, too. That said, it does sound like an interesting exploration of the Biafrian way of life, even if the characters didn’t exactly draw you in. I like looking at the human side of larger events and movements, but it doesn’t work well if the characters aren’t appealing…

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    • Thanks, Margot! 😀 This one was definitely worth reading to get a bit of insight into the Biafran episode, but somehow her characters always leave me a bit cold. I think I’m just not a fan of her writing style. I do like to see the human side too, but here I felt the balance was too much on the side of the personal while I really wanted to know more about the historical background. It’s all subjective, though – the things that put me off are probably the things that many other people enjoyed!

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  7. Wabbit is one of my favorite words, and describes the feeling perfecly. I’m glad you are kind of on the mend now, and that your illness wasn’t too serious. I probably get on a bit better with domestic than you, but caring about the characters is essential, or else it just falls flat. I’m more disturbed by the author attempting to make some kind of excuse for a character being a perpetrator in a gang rape, when there is no excuse at all. I wouldn’t completely rule it out of my reading list, but it certainly won’t be a priority.

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    • It’s a great word, isn’t it? I had to think hard to be able to “translate” it – there’s no exact match for it in English, I think. Thank you – I’m fine now, just working on getting my energy levels back up, with the aid of plenty of medicinal chocolate. 😉 Yes, somehow her characters never work for me, although I didn’t dislike most of the ones in this one as much as I did the main character in Americanah. I just never seem to much care what happens to them, even when they’re going through horrors like these ones. I was really surprised at her apparent willingness to justify the rape. It killed that character stone dead for me, and unfortunately he’d been the one I most cared about up to that point.

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  8. Glad to hear you’re feeling better! I love learning “wabbit.” 🙂 I haven’t read this one – I think I’ve stalled because I am not eager to read about war and strife, especially now. But I did love Americanah so I think one day I’ll give this one a whirl.

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    • Thank you! Wabbit is a wonderful word – there’s no real exact equivalent in English, but every Scot knows exactly what you mean! Oddly, I found the flatness of the tone meant it wasn’t nearly as harrowing as I’d expected – which was part of the problem, since I felt it should be. But I think I just don’t get on with her style, so if you loved Americanah then I think you’ll probably enjoy this too – when you can face the thought!

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  9. I don’t think this sounds like one I’d enjoy (or want to read, since you didn’t really “enjoy” it). I can remember as a child when my mother would tell me to clean my plate because of the “starving Armenians”. I would tell her it was the Biafrans who were starving, not the Armenians.

    Thank you for defining “wabbit”. All I could think of was Elmer Fudd and that “wascally wabbit”!! I hope you feel better and get out of that funk (or perhaps “acedia”… a word I’m studying) very soon. I’ve missed you here!

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    • Ha! Yes, I think every child of that era was bullied into eating because of those poor Biafrans – I can still vividly remember the pictures night after night. I think that was when the big charity drive into Africa really began.
      Thank you – another few boxes of chocolate and I’ll be fully restored! Haha, yes, feeling wabbit is a phrase that could easily be misinterpreted! 😉 Acedia is great – a new one to me, but looking at the definition it definitely sounds a bit wabbity, though wabbit is usually to do with illness or exhaustion. I’m intrigued – why are you studying it?

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      • There was an article in my paper that likened what people were feeling during these months of covid to the term. It reminded me I had a book on my shelf by Kathleen Norris called Acedia & Me… so I’ve begun reading it. The word (accidie) was declared obsolete in the 1933 OED, but later editions have instructed to “Delete Obs.” I find the concept of the word fascinating, and feel I might be dealing with acedia myself. 🤔. I’ll let you know when I finish the book!

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  10. I’m glad you’re back, you were missed! I read this a few years ago and remember learning a lot about the Biafran war, but I think like Rose I have a greater capacity than you for romance so found it a very good read. Your point about the rape is very well made; I think this type of excusing male behaviour is so ingrained in us that it is easy to lazily read over it and perhaps write it too. You’ve given me something to think about with my reading. My blogging has been abysmal lately and I don’t even have the excuse of wabbit (or should it be feeling wabbit?)

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  11. I guess because they are not mysteries, I have never been interested in Adichie’s books. I am reading much more out of the mystery genre now, but there is only room for so many books.

    Anyway, based on your review, I think I can skip this. Too long, for one thing. The bedhopping would not appeal to me in a book. So, your review was useful for me.

    Hope you are feeling much better. I have been under the weather and reading and blogging has slowed down a bit, but it is really my plants outside that are suffering.

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  12. So glad to see you back!!!

    I enjoyed your review. I probably won’t read this one, because I am not a fan of soap opera-like issues. The background details you mentioned, however, sound fascinating.

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  13. Well, I believe I have one or two of her books on my shelves, and have been meaning to read them for the longest time. I’ll have to see which ones I own. If this is one of them, I may choose to read the other first. Hope your wabbity-ness has hopped on down the road.

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  14. And here I thought you were glued to the TV watching the Olympics!! Glad you’re on the mend, FF. This book’s not for me, but I enjoyed reading your review (and am happy you found it so interesting!)

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  15. I’m definitely going to dodge this one. You must be about the same age as me I think. I still get flashbacks of those Biafrans and the children’s distended stomachs. I hope you’re not so wabbit now.

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  16. You were missed and it’s lovely to have you back and not feeling quite so wabbitity. It’s tough to stick with a book when the characters stay inert on the page, though it sounds like the book did have some compensations. Maybe you’ll find another book about the period and place that is more to your taste.

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  17. It’s just the kind of book I would be interested in, but this one doesn’t seem good enough though. I would be annoyed by the blame culture, by the excuses made for gang-rape. For me, to behave out of character during war means stealing to feed the family, not join in a gang-rape.
    What a shame though, I really liked the idea of the book though.

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  18. Hope you’re on the mend, and that the health scare was just that, a scare. I’m glad it hasn’t affected your critical faculties—this has always sounded like a worthy novel, and you confirm that impression, but your added criticisms suggest that I could do better by reading, say, Chinua Achebe.

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  19. I’m sorry this didn’t quite work for you though I think you articulate here very well why it wasn’t a good fit. I could definitely see wanting more of the historical and social information than Adichie offers. I had never even heard of the Biafran War before this so ended up having to do a lot of my own research as I read.

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  20. As always, I appreciate learning new Scottish words, including ‘wabbit’! Interesting mixed review of this one. I haven’t read it, but I did read Americanah ages ago. Your mention of rape in war, the book I reviewed a few months ago by Kim Echline(Speak Softly) deals with just that, and although it’s fiction, she explores how horrific it is for the victims, and of course, deserves no sort of justification. It’s a particularly personal kind of weapon-unlike a gun that you can use to protect yourself and justify through self defense, there is no form of protection with rape-it is simply an aggression meant to break someone, which in my mind, makes it particularly devastating.

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  21. I read ‘Things Fall Apart’ a few months ago. It was one of those books I felt I ‘ought’ to read and it didn’t light my fire, as it appears this one doesn’t light yours. I think you and I both would’ve preferred to read a straight history of the Biafran war.

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