Half of a Yellow Sun

As I mentioned yesterday, I turned to Patrick O’Brian as respite from a couple of heavy war novels I’d been reading. One was Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I picked this up from the library at random; I think it was lying on top of a cart waiting to be shelved. I had never heard of it, but I was attracted by the interesting title and the exotic name of the author. And I was further intrigued after reading her bio, which mentions numerous publications and prizes.

Half of a Yellow Sun is about the Biafran War, 1967–1970. I am so ashamed to say that not only had I never heard of this book or its author, but I had never even heard of the war. I was born in 1966; although I wasn’t old enough to be aware of it when it was happening, surely I should have heard about it some time during the last 43 years.

Oh, what a distressing story it is.

Basically, Biafra was a secessionist nation that only existed for three years, the result of a brutal civil war between different ethnic groups in Nigeria. Only a handful of countries recognized Biafra as a nation, and what little aid was sent by humanitarian groups rarely reached those who needed it. A million people died of disease and starvation. When I googled for images of Biafra, I don’t know what I was expecting: landscapes, or maps, maybe. Instead I got National Geographic-style photos of starving children with swollen bellies, stick-figure limbs, and flies in their eyes.

Grim topic for a novel, eh? But well worth reading, if you have the stomach for it. As a novel it works very well. The writing is excellent; the story is tight and well structured. There are several protagonists that share the spotlight and give you a nice variety of perspectives in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. Against the backdrop of the war, people grow, relationships develop and change, and life goes on. But always there is the war and the famine, and no easy answers. Some plot threads are deliberately left open. And if you happen to be white and privileged you will feel guilty, reading this. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

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