Orange Prize: Half of a Yellow Sun --Dewey's review

This review is cross-posted at my blog.

I hardly know where to start writing about Half of a Yellow Sun. It was so brutal, and so powerful. Apparently I'm not the only one who really isn't quite sure where to start; there's no Wikipedia article about it yet in spite of the fact that it won this year's Orange Prize.

Before reading this, I knew very little about the Biafran War/Nigerian Civil War/Nigeria-Biafra War (whichever name you prefer --Adichie seems to prefer the latter). I kept setting aside the book, both to look up information about the war and to process what was happening in the narrative.

I think I'm most impressed by Adichie's ability to realistically portray the everyday lives of people living in turbulent times. Aside from finding themselves in the middle of a war, the characters have very different ideas, traditions and lifestyles, depending on whether they're older or younger, wealthy or poor, black or white, African or English, educated or illiterate. I loved this diverse look at the people of this time and place. And it was fascinating to see how they all keep trying to live as normally as possible in spite of the upheaval of war.

The narrative switches back and forth from the early 60s to the late 60s a few times, and I found this hard to follow. I don't think it's a flaw in the novel so much as that I realize I just have a very linear way of thinking. I would have had an easier time with a strictly chronological story. The last several chapters, though, just pound straight through to the end of the war, and these chapters are so devastating that I felt emotionally bruised for hours after finishing the book.

I can't really mention the part I most want to discuss with others who have read the book without spoilers, so if you haven't read the book yet and intend to, please stop reading now. There may also be spoilers in the comments if people comment on the spoilers below.

(Oops -- the "more" tag I use in wordpress doesn't work here. If someone knows how to use that at blogger, please feel free to come in and put one right here.)


My favorite character by far, throughout most of the book, is Ugwu. And I felt horrified, almost betrayed, when Ugwu participates in that gang rape of the bartender after he's conscripted. Ugwu is so consistently portrayed as a deeply good boy and then man. I realize that a huge message of the novel is that war destroys people. But I find it impossible to believe that Ugwu would join in a gang rape simply because his manhood is questioned by other men, men he considered ignorant and uneducated. Only moments before, Ugwu takes initiative in telling the men to stop harassing the bartender for not having any beer left. And then, seconds before he joins the gang rape, he orders one of the other men off the bartender. This is a man who speaks up for what is right and wrong. I have a hard time believing that any real man who is so contemplative and so honorable as Ugwu shows himself to be throughout the book, even a man traumatized by war, would throw aside everything he stands for and participate in a gang rape.

In the following passage, one of the main characters, Olanna has just had an upsetting phone conversation with her twin sister. The rift between the sisters serves as a symbol of the civil war. Here, even though Olanna mentions some trouble she's had with her partner's mother, I think it's really more a reflection of how she feels about being disconnected from her sister, though she isn't admitting to herself how much that disturbs her. These feelings are probably recognizable to anyone who has ever been separated from a loved one. I think it's beautifully written, and that it really captures a sense of loss.

She sat on the cold floor and leaned her head against the wall to see if she would feel less light, less unmooored. Odenigbo's mother's visit had ripped a hole in her safe mesh of feathers, startled her, snatched something away from her. She felt one step away from where she should be. She felt as if she had left her pearls lying loose for too long and it was time to gather them and guard them more carefully.

This next passage is Olanna speaking to Odenigbo. Olanna has cheated on Odenigbo with her sister's partner, Richard. Odenigbo has cheated on Olanna with Amala, a neighbor. They both know about each other's infidelities. Olanna notices that Odenigbo is no longer speaking to Richard. I found this passage interesting, because it reflects a conversation I had recently with some friends about whether a person who has been sexually betrayed by a partner blames the unfaithful partner, or the other party, or both.

"I never blamed Amala," she said. It was to you that I had given my trust and the only way a stranger could tamper with that trust was with your permission. I blamed only you."

Odenigbo placed his hand on her thigh.

"You should be angry with, not with Richard," she said.

I believe Olanna takes this stance at least partly because she doesn't want her sister (who doesn't at this point know about the incident) to be angry with her for having sex with her sister's partner. My own stance (without really knowing how I would actually react or feel in the situation) is that Olanna is correct that the person to blame is the one to whom you've given your trust. But sometimes, as in Olanna's sister's situation, you've also trusted the other party, because that other party is your friend, or even your twin sister. I believe that Olanna betrays two people by having sex with Richard. And so does Richard, since Odenigbo is his friend.

Read last month's interview about this book with Jules.

Read Jules' own review of this book.

Here, Adichie is interviewed about Half of a Yellow Sun, but beware! There are spoilers. 5 minutes 30 seconds.