Last week we had a discussion on the Literary Blog Hop about socio-political agenda in books. I think most of us agreed that as long as the agenda did not take us away from the story it was acceptable and sometimes even desirable. In Half of a Yellow Sun the politics is the story. Adichie doesn’t shy away from taking sides (The title refers to the emblem on the Biafran flag) but she still somehow manages to keep prejudice away.
Half of a Yellow Sun is narrated from four different perspectives. First there is Ugwu, an adolescent houseboy with no political views whatsoever. Then there is Olanna, a beautiful and educated woman from a privileged background that she leaves behind. There is also Richard, a British expatriate in Nigeria who is desperate to belong. The fourth perspective is actually a book within the book, hauntingly titled The World Was Silent When We Died.
The story begins on an endearing note with an innocent Ugwu arriving from a tiny village to the university town of Nsukka to work as a houseboy. He is awed and amazed at everything he sees, especially his Master. The Master (Odenigbo) is in love with Olanna who moves in with him to the chagrin of her wealthy and self absorbed parents. Richard is an aspiring writer who falls in love with Olanna’s twin Kainene. There is hurt and betrayal, loyalty and immense love. And then the Biafran war rips their lives apart.
War forces these people out of their homes and throws them into a world that gets more hellish by the day. All concepts of good and bad, strength and weakness are turned on their head. Adichie does not turn this into a war commentary or a history lesson. She never resorts to the rhetoric that most war novels are burdened with. The story stays focused on these characters while their lives, ideologies and personalities change and sometimes come unstuck.
This was not an easy book to read. The mellow start does not prepare you for the unrelenting brutality that follows. Parts of the book are absolutely harrowing and you wonder why you’re doing this to yourself. But you care for these people, you mourn for them and you can feel their helplessness, their terror, their shame and their rage.
“Were you silent when we died?”
Did you see photos in sixty eight
Of children with their hair becoming rust:
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust?
Imagine children with arms like toothpicks,
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin.
It was Kwashiorkor- difficult word.
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin.
You needn’t imagine. There were photos
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly,
Then turn around to hold your lover or wife?