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Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

August 27, 2010

Half of a Yellow Sun CoverTitle: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
Length: 541 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Vintage Canada / 2006
Source: The TBR pile (originally my local Indigo, I think?)
Rating: 5/5
Why I Read It: I loved her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, and I’ve heard many great things about this author.
Date Read: 20/08/10

I knew after reading Adichie’s short story collection that I had to read her full length books as well. I picked this up a year ago, and can’t believe I left it so long. WHY did I leave it so long?! This book was incredibly well written and very powerful. I apologize in advance for how long this post is going to be :)

This book deals with so many subjects that I want to talk about. Let me start by giving you the book summary:

With effortless grace, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in African history: Biafra’s struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of promise, hope, and the disappointment of war.

When reading this book you don’t have to know anything about the history of Nigeria as it clearly lays out a lot of what is important for this time period. The book has four parts – early sixties, late sixties, early sixties and late sixties. It jumps back and forth but still easily maintains a single narrative. We follow all of the characters in their normal lives before the war, and then during the war and we see how it affects them and everyone and how their lives are changed.

The book is heartbreaking. It really is. Truly, nothing I can say about this book will do it justice so let me just say that it is incredible and you really must read it. There are, however, a few things that I especially want to talk about. First of all, a quick history lesson:

Biafran Flag - from WikipediaIn case you don’t know, Nigeria has three main ethnic tribes – the Hausa in the North, Yoruba in the West and Igbo in the East. Besides these three main groups there are a large number of smaller minority tribes. The British always considered the Muslim Hausa easier to work with and gave them more power. The North is also much more dry and arid while the south has a lot of oil. As you can imagine, at independence in 1960 things didn’t go smoothly. After a coup which but the Igbo in power, a retaliation coup followed which gave power back to the Hausa. At this time an estimated 30,000 Igbo people were killed in the North and there were some reprisal killings of Hausa in the South. This was one of the main reasons for the succession of the Republic of Biafra. Nigeria then launched a campaign to regain Biafra (and it’s oil) which caused widespread hunger and the fighting lasted for three years. The support given to Nigeria by the US, UK and Soviet Union is considered to have played a major role in Nigeria winning. Tensions are still high and those in the South still fight for more control over their lives and the revenue of the oil money (and huge amounts of pollution caused by it). See Wikipedia for more.

One narrative throughout the book is the tribal politics. The characters we follow are all Igbo, but some of them have friends from other tribes. We hear about the desires for independence from Britain and the chance to govern themselves. We see how brave Hausa men and women helped to smuggle some Igbo people to safety. We see some still maintaining ties with their Hausa friends while others paint the entire group as evil, especially during war-time.

What was also interesting was to see the changes of the Igbo attitudes from being considerate of others to saying all ‘others’, including those in minority tribes, are saboteurs and should be killed. You could really see how the war and constant fighting was wearing on their psyches, and it was really well written to show this slow descent.

It was also interesting for me to see how Richard, as an Englishman, was treated compared to the others. He was always kept as more of an outsider even though he loved it and wanted to help the people. Even when he choose Biafra and to stay with Kainene, they never allow him to truly be a Biafran, or to experience the same things, because he could leave. He is an aspiring writer but throughout the book faces disdain for wanting to write about their experience, even though he is living it at the same time.

This was really interesting to me as, as a reader of International fiction, I always wonder who really gets to tell a story. I like to focus on writers who are native to that country as they are really telling their own story. But what gives a foreigner the right to write about another country or culture? How long does one have to live there before being a part of it? If you are living through a war along with the locals and not getting any benefits for being ‘other’ are you really still ‘other’? Or does it really just all come down to where you were born? I’m not sure I agree with the fact that Richard believes it isn’t his story to tell because in my mind he had no privileges that separated him. He was Biafran. But then again, I am ‘other’ so how can I decide? What do you think?

The last really interesting point I want to bring out was the way that the Western world responded. Food aid was available some days and not others, there was really no reliability or stability in people’s lives. The way it was handed out was also dehumanizing for people, as was the fact that it wasn’t food that they were used to or that they would normally eat so they didn’t always know what to do with it or even like it. Ugwu mentions (wish I could find the page number and actual quote!) that he doesn’t understand why they wouldn’t find out what people actually eat in the area.

The other side of this was the way the whole war and succession was treated by the Western media. The Western world doesn’t want to hear about the conflicts, how the tensions were a direct result of the British policies, and the truth for the ordinary people. Instead the news organizations only want to know about how tribal the people are, or about that one Westerner who was killed. It was sad as you can see that it is clearly true still today. The following is a section from a conversation between Richard and some journalists that he is showing around on page 465.

“Unbelievable,” the redhead said. “The Biafran propaganda machine is great.”

“There isn’t a propaganda machine,” Richard said. “The more civilians you bomb, the more resistance you grow.”

“Is that from Radio Biafra?” the redhead asked. “It sounds like something from the radio.”

The whole conversation in this part was sad to read. The journalists clearly have their minds made up of what is going on and what is newsworthy and will not see anything different. They also are incredibly rude and ignorant to all the locals and to Richard when he shows that he considers himself a Biafran rather than an Englishman.

This book took me 5 days to read, which is a lot longer than a book this size would normally take. As I said above, it truly was heartbreaking. I highly recommend it to everyone as I think it explores some really important topics as well as gives us a human view of a big event in history that is still affecting things today.

49 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2010 8:30 am

    Thanks for the review – I keep seeing this one around but have now added it to my wish list.

    • August 28, 2010 9:54 am

      Thanks Jessica – it is a powerful book. I hope you love it.

  2. August 27, 2010 9:36 am

    Reading this review reminds me that the guy from Bookmooch who was supposed to send this to me six weeks ago never did…grr.

    • August 28, 2010 9:54 am

      Oh no Amanda! I really hope your BookMooch sender gets his act together and sends it already. It’s a great book.

  3. August 27, 2010 10:46 am

    What a wonderful look at “other”. I had a friend from Africa in college who was white. He thought it so very strange that he couldn’t be considered African when he was born and raised in Africa, and yet people who had never been to Africa were called African-American. He felt that we defined ourselves too much by skin color and not enough by experience.

    • August 28, 2010 9:57 am

      Yes, Trisha, what a good point that sometimes skin color matters too much. Richard was British and was only in Nigeria / Biafra for a few years, so yes, he is still British. But if you’re white and you are born and raised on the continent I would think you are African! It is kind of like saying we aren’t Americans because we’re not Native Americans, know what I mean?

      Anyone else have any ideas on this? Is it solely skin color? Or does where you are born and raised come in to play as well?

      • August 28, 2010 1:57 pm

        I agree that where someone is born and raised does count for something, regardless of race. Counts for a lot.

        I REALLY want to read this book, soon!

  4. August 27, 2010 11:32 am

    I really need to read this, I loved Purple Hibiscus when I read it. I think I’ve been holding off because I am not good at super-sad books. :p

    • August 28, 2010 9:57 am

      I understand Jenny! It is definitely worth it though. I have yet to read Purple Hibiscus, but I’m really looking forward to it.

  5. August 27, 2010 11:58 am

    I have always really wanted to read this book, and have heard great things about it, but after reading your review, I think it’s one that I should get to sooner rather than later. You wrote an excellent and very thorough review, and I really appreciated it!

    • August 28, 2010 9:58 am

      Thank you zibilee, I kind of had a hard time stopping ;) It was a book I’d wanted to read for a long time too so I’m glad I finally sat down with it. I highly recommend it!

  6. August 27, 2010 11:58 am

    I’ve lefted books on my shelf for long periods of time and then when I do pick them up, I’m always shocked why I didn’t read it sooner. Come to think of it, I believe I have this book on my shelf right now and haven’t read it. After reading your review, I should def. pick it up!

    • August 28, 2010 9:59 am

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who does that LR! I hope when you do read this that you love it as much as I did.

  7. August 27, 2010 12:02 pm

    I have read this together with Purple Hibiscus and The Thing Around Your Neck and have reviewed them on my blog. Half of a Yellow Sun is one of the best books ever written…. okay… it is on the list of my all-time favourites. I love it.

    That’s why I don’t like Naipaul’s writings about other cultures. Assuming Naipaul had been Richard what would he have written?:

    That the people are tribalistic.. and there is no purpose to the war… that they eat lizard brain… and it is absurd the way they kill the lizards… having no concern for animal rights… that the Igbo people war-loving etc etc etc…

    … And yet in the novel there were a lot Naipauls… the Western Journalists who refuse to dig deep but to remain true to their prejudices and misconceptions of the African…

    This truly is a beautiful write and it was no wonder that she was amongst the best 20 writers below 40 years as chosen by the Guardian…

    • August 28, 2010 10:06 am

      Yes Nana, I actually checked out your review of this book after I finished writing up mine :) I have yet to read Purple Hibiscus but I’m really looking forward to it. I was worried that this wouldn’t live up to The Thing Around Your Neck but it far surpassed it, to me. She is such an incredible talented writer. You are right, no surprise at all that she made the Best 20 Under 40 list!

      And that makes sense, the reporters especially were very Naipul and just so disturbing to read about. I think it is important that those who are a part of a culture write about it… but what if in 30 years Richard is still there, and still a part of the culture – how long before he is one of them? Just being a bit of a devil’s advocate here ;)

      To me I think part of the issue is not just that the Naipuls or Richards think they can tell about another culture, the issue is also that the Ugwu’s aren’t given a chance to publish, and even if they are we will read Richard before Ugwu, if that makes sense. If we had Ugwu’s book and Richard’s book and weighted Ugwu’s higher, or understood that it was his culture and only Richard’s adopted culture, maybe it wouldn’t matter who wrote as we would be able to compare and contrast. Would be an interesting study in attitudes and how much of a culture really gets adopted too! Of course, that is just a dream, at least for now!

  8. August 27, 2010 5:56 pm

    I read this book last week and I loved it too. It’s the first book I’ve read by this author (and also the first book I’ve read about Nigeria and Biafra) and I was very impressed. Now I can’t wait to read Purple Hibiscus!

    • August 28, 2010 10:08 am

      I can’t wait to read Purple Hibiscus either Helen! I’m really glad to hear that you loved it. Have you reviewed it yet? I’m off to hunt for your review in case you did :)

  9. winstonsdad permalink
    August 27, 2010 6:44 pm

    I read this pre blogging days and loved it also really enjoyed thing around your neck ,she has a great writing voice and potrays harrowing situations so understatedly ,all the best stu

    • August 28, 2010 10:09 am

      Yes Stu, she really does portray these situations wonderfully doesn’t she. I’m glad you enjoyed this as well.

  10. August 27, 2010 7:55 pm

    I also rank this one as one of my all time favorites, certainly one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. I’m glad to hear that you liked it, too.

    • August 28, 2010 10:09 am

      I’m so glad to see all these people who loved it! I love sharing book love :D It will definitely stay with me for a long time cbjames.

  11. August 28, 2010 4:14 am

    I actually very much agree that it wasn’t Richard’s story to tell. Yes, he lived through the war and suffered immensely, but I think that in a way his privilege insulated him of the kind of terror and destitution the other characters experienced. Like you said, it could have left. He chose to stay, yes, but the others had no options at all. More than that, though, I think that as an Englishman he felt that there was too much of a history of speaking FOR other countries rather than letting them speak for themselves to be comfortable adding to it, you know? And I’m with him there.

    Anyway… I’m so so glad you loved this :D It’s such a brilliant book.

    • August 28, 2010 10:13 am

      Yes, that is a good point Ana. There is the history there too of the Englishmen feeling they have a history of speaking for others.

      I’m thinking that maybe he has A story to tell – but Ugwu’s would be more important to tell, and knowing that as readers a lot in the West would (unfortunately) read his story before Ugwu’s, he chooses to leave it to Ugwu so there is no competition. Does that make sense? I kind of say this in my comment to Nana above. Just a thought I had, I’m not 100% sure about it yet, just playing around with it in my head :)

  12. August 28, 2010 9:19 am

    Fabulous review; I have to read this one soon having loved Purple Hibiscus!

    • August 28, 2010 10:14 am

      I’m happy to see a few here who have loved Purple Hibiscus. I have yet to read it :) I hope you enjoy this one as much as you did PH Diane!

  13. August 28, 2010 1:48 pm

    Great review, Amy! I loved Purple Hibiscus so I really want to read more by her (and Nigerian authors in general, they are so talented!).

    Also, I received your books from the giveaway, thanks so much! :)

    • August 31, 2010 10:31 am

      Thanks Bina, I’m really looking forward to Purple Hibiscus! And I’m so glad the books arrived!

  14. August 28, 2010 4:04 pm

    She is an author I’ve been meaning to read for far, far too long. She was named to the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and I’m looking forward to starting the list this fall!

    • August 31, 2010 10:31 am

      She is an incredibly talented author Carrie – I hope you enjoy her works. I’m going to have to check out more authors from the list.

  15. August 29, 2010 10:30 am

    I loved this one too. I think I enjoyed Purple Hibiscus a bit more than this one though. I thought there were a few slow sections in Yellow Sun and wish it had been a bit smaller. I agree about how useful it was to learn about this period in history – I’m a big fan of Adichie!

    • August 31, 2010 10:32 am

      You liked it even more, Jackie? Wow, I’m really intrigued now!

  16. August 29, 2010 1:27 pm

    I’m glad you loved this novel as much as I did. I like the fact that you focused on Richard’s “otherness” and whether it was right for him to tell this story. As I was reading the book, I had conflicted feelings about this. Part of me felt as you did. Another part of me felt as Nymeth did. The very fact of having other choices insulates a person to an extent. And while Richard’s love of Kainene and of Nigeria ran very deep, I could see that he viewed things somewhat differently, through the lens of his own culture. This doesn’t make his perception “wrong,” but it is — in a sense — a very different story.

    • August 31, 2010 10:33 am

      Yep, it’s really hard to pin down laughingstars66! I feel both ways at the same time, but thinking about it more and after all the comments I think they both have stories to tell – they just have different stories to tell. And I think Richard chose not to write his because he knew that people would read his and disregard Ugwu’s, does that make sense? So yes, I agree with you!

  17. August 31, 2010 4:17 pm

    Wonderful review, Amy! I haven’t read any of Adichie’s books before. I need to get started. I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list.

    It is sad how Nigerian history panned out in the 1960s. It was interesting to know from your review that US, UK and the Soviet Union were on the same side and were supporting the Nigerian government on the issue of Biafra’s independence – this when the cold war was at its peak :) It just shows that governments can get together when it matters, eventhough sometimes it is for selfish reasons.

    • August 31, 2010 10:25 pm

      Thanks Vishy – Adichie is so awesome. And yes, when there is oil involved it’s crazy to see who gets together isn’t it!!

  18. September 9, 2010 8:33 pm

    I’ve had this book for a year and haven’t read it yet either! Oops. I saw a documentry about Adichie (which made me go out and buy the book in the first place) which was really interesting. I knew nothing about the Biafran War so it’s something I’m interested in learning more about. Your wonderful review (and discussion) has really made me want to read it now! I really liked the points you raised and will definitely come back to re-read your review once I’ve finished it:)

    • September 10, 2010 9:35 am

      Isn’t Adichie incredible chasing bawa?? I hope that you love this book as much as I did / get as much out of it when you finally do get a chance to read it.

  19. September 10, 2010 1:48 pm

    I only skimmed your review b/c I am hoping to get to this book very soon. It is downloaded onto my phone (the audio version) already. I’m sort of both dreading and looking forward to starting it.

    • September 13, 2010 8:57 am

      I hope you really love it Heather J, I can’t recommend it enough! I’ll be waiting for your review :)

  20. September 16, 2010 3:09 pm

    OK…I really need to read some of her stuff before the Texas Book Festival. This review was fantastic.

    As for the question of being an outsider, I think it all depends on how the person acts when moving somewhere. I’m from a town that is very touristy but has a VERY rich culture. Once it became trendy to go there, lots of people from other places moved there and invoked what they believed the “style” of the town was. I worked for one of these people and I loved her, but she didn’t hang out with really any locals at all. The people that moved there that were wealthy tended to hang out in their own circles of people that were from where they were originally from. Now the city has changed power (all these people that aren’t natives now run the government in my city) and it’s kind of sad to see how much the city has changed into something that I don’t necessarily like a whole lot. Not all the changes were bad of course, but it is sad to see your culture go away and have the city become less affordable for locals so they are all moving to another city.

    Anyway, it doesn’t seem like that’s what Richard did. It sounded like he tried to immerse himself into the culture and the people. It can be hard I’m sure! I’m definitely adding Miss Adichie’s books to my TBR list. I think you told me to start with her short stories so I will do that first, but this book sounds fantastic.

    • September 18, 2010 11:58 am

      That is a really great point Carin! Some people try to take over a culture and make it their own, while others try to immerse themselves in it and respect it. Also, yes yes yes, Adichie is marvelous!!

  21. July 13, 2012 8:40 am

    I used to have a different view about the civil war in NIgeria, not until I read the book, it’s really interesting and didatic. thumbs up Adichie.


  1. The Best of 2010: Fiction « Amy Reads
  2. Who is Telling the Story? Another Question of Diversity in Publishing « Amy Reads
  3. Review: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie « Amy Reads
  4. Half of the Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie « Bibliojunkie

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