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Half of a Yellow Sun: 2007-01-01
  • Half of a Yellow Sun

    Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Knopf, September 2006 $24.95, ISBN 1-400-04416-2

    In the unlikely event that this prize-winning author never writes another word, her place in literary history is secured with her second novel, her tribute to her people, the Igbo Igbo (ĭg`bō) or Ibo (ē`bō), one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, deriving mainly from SE Nigeria, numbering around 15 million., who, after being massacred in 1966, broke away from Nigeria to create the Republic of Biafra and then fought an unsuccessful three-year war of secession.

    This novel is not a standard war account: Though we are not sheltered from its horrors, Adichie excels in the way she tells about war. The child's head in the calabash could have been merely gruesome; yet what haunts us is the mother's sadness, so deep that she can only say, "it took me so long to plait this hair."

    Mostly, though, we learn of the war, the colonial history of its origins, and the national politics that fueled it, through the lives of Adichie's characters: Olanna, selfless, educated, wealthy, and fresh back home from London; Odenigbo, her idealist academic "revolutionary lover"; their houseboy (servant) Ugwu; Olanna's hard-as-nails twin sister Kainene, and her insecure white British lover. From them and others, we understand what it was like to be Igbo at that time in Nigeria; to feel the terror of "ethnic cleansing" and to feel pride in refusing to accept it. To feel confident that "even the grass will fight for Biafra"; and then, to know defeat.

    Her characters' strengths are in their complexity and their flaws. Olanna, "the good one" does the unforgivable to Kainene. In addition, the love between Olanna and Odenigbo is in danger of unraveling in the face of betrayals initiated by Odenigbo's mother, a village woman convinced that Olanna is a witch. Even Ugwu, in whom we sense innate goodness, succumbs to human baseness.

    Throughout the story, Adichie insists on accountability and then forgiveness as the only option for redemption: "What will you do with the misery you have chosen? Will you eat misery?" By the end, after breaking our hearts, she uses her last sentence to blindside us with a gift. We never see it coming. With it, she offers hope in the future, which is what, we imagine, the Igbos would have marshaled so that they could carry on.

    --Reviewed by Marie-Elena John

    Marie-Elena John is the author of the noveI Unburnable (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2006). She is a former Africa development specialist and has lived and worked in Nigeria.
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