Adichie explores a chaotic time for Nigeria
On July 6, 1967, Nigeria was officially torn apart by civil war. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun retells the horrific pain, fear, and violence of the Nigerian-Biafran War through the eyes of three unique protagonists: a servant boy Ugwu, his master’s rich and beautiful girlfriend Olanna, and an Englishman named Richard. Each character offers his or her own perspective on the troubled times, depicting the anguish experienced by Nigerians during the war.
Carved arbitrarily out of western Africa by the British colonial empire, Nigeria was made up of diverse African tribes that began to fight for control of the country after the British left. Democracy crumbled when two of the main tribes, the Hausa and the Igbo, opened war on each other. In an attempt to declare their independence, the Igbo created Biafra, a new country in the south.
Being Igbo, Olanna, her lover Odenigbo, their baby, and Ugwu are forced to flee their home and migrate to Biafra. Their journey to find safety in a volatile country with no real shelter, few friends, no food, and no knowledge of when the suffering is going to end is horrifyingly moving.
Adichie divides the narrative between the three main characters and plays with the timeline of the plot. Her move of tampering with the order in which readers hear the story is one that she had employed successfully in her first book, Purple Hibiscus, as well. Bypassing the interim years allows Adichie to surprise the readers with questions — Olanna now has a baby; when was the baby born? Richard and Odenigbo have had a falling out; why did that happen? — questions that are only answered when she returns to tell the tales of the missing years.
Through the character of Ugwu, Adichie is able to communicate how harsh environments shape people for the worse, making them capable of performing acts they never thought they could. Readers witness Ugwu as an innocent boy growing up in Odenigbo’s house. Then, after the war, Olanna desperately tries to keep Ugwu from being forced to enlist in the army, but his recruitment is inevitable. Army life makes Ugwu a changed man. A major turning point in Ugwu’s life, and one that starkly depicts the lack of moral values during times of war, is when Ugwu joins his army buddies in gang-raping a woman. The description of the event stains the innocent image of Ugwu’s past — leaving a broken, unfamiliar one in its place.
Even with the broader acts of war taking place throughout the book, Adichie is able to focus on the strong personal relationships between the characters: the love-hate relationship between Olanna and her twin sister Kainene, Richard and Kainene’s unexpected love for one another, and the fracturing and healing of Olanna and Odenigbo’s bond. Adichie has a wonderfully simple and clear style of writing that lets the strength of her story speak for itself, allowing readers to be truly impacted by not just the bare facts of history, but also the torn and lost lives of her characters entangled in it.