Tuesday 4 August 2015

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review by M

Here's the fuzzy lead up to why I read Half of a Yellow Sun in the first place, and my mixed but hopeful expectations for it:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus is one of those books that has a special place on my shelves. I read it during a period when I was reading little fiction and not making note of my thoughts about that which I did read (other than the piles of non-fiction, of course!). Consequently, I remember little of what Purple Hibiscus is about other than that my enduring response to it is similar to the one I hold for Tsisti Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (both are about teenage girls in African countries). In short, Ngozi Adichie had earned a place in my reading heart. But then I tried reading Americanah, her most recent novel and the main character's internal whining jarred too much with me, and I left it unfinished and disappointed. But then someone from Booktrust told me how much they'd loved Half of a Yellow Sun, so I kept a wary eye out for it, curious as to whether it would be another Purple Hibiscus, an Americanah, or something else for me.

It was definitely more Purple Hibiscus, so I'm very happy and would recommend this novel to a variety of people.

Three things stood out most for me in Half of a Yellow Sun. - I learned something, I enjoyed the storytelling/plot over character (I know!), and yes, there is something about the writing (or structure) that jars with me a little.

The story is set in 1960s Nigeria, just before and during the civil war and the establishment of Biafra. Yes, I'd forgotten about Biafra (and Ngozi Adichie raises an eyebrow or smiles wryly inwardly), so I learned quite a bit from the plot, which often pleases me. For example, the title of the book is taken from a symbol on the Biafran flag. I'm sure I never knew that.

The plot became the page turner for me, and I read this novel for long uninterrupted periods over a few days - which is the first novel of the five I've read this year that has had that effect on me. Either I've reached a turning point or that's saying something about Half of a Yellow Sun. At least, it's saying that the novel tells a good story: that of love and human relationships within an extended family/household, and civil war.

Characterwise, the narrator and the novel moves back and forth among its main characters: Ugwu (the houseboy), Olanna (the long suffering beauty), Kainene (the ugly twin), Odenigbo (Master and revolutionary lover), and Richard (white man writer in Africa). Ugwu, for me, is by far the most charming of the characters. Olanna is a character who doesn't feel 'right' to me and I'm starting to think that Ngozi Adichie's main female characters are always going to have this effect on me. But, that thought doesn't sit true with Purple Hibiscus, whose main character is female. Interestingly, too, Ugwu and Kambili (Purple Hibiscus) are both teenagers. Perhaps then, I like Ngozi Adichie's characterisation of teenagers but not female adults. I'd have to reread Purple Hibiscus to get to the bottom of that one.

Structurally, I wasn't overly keen. The novel moves back and forth between the early and the late 1960s. The middle of these periods turns on two points: Biafra and war, and personal relationship troubles. Often I feel that this is done for no other reason than to introduce suspense. The novel does this but annoyingly it also 'spoils' some of the plot by telling me what happens before the story has reached it natural course (yep, for once, I'm plumping for a more linear tale!). There's also a strange device that occasionally tags the draft of a novel onto the end of chapters. The strange thing about this is it's written by the narrator and not the 'author'. For me, it obstructs the flow. I understand that Ngozi Adichie is making a political point about who should tell which stories but the whole of Half of a Yellow Sun does this anyway.

A last and, for me, interesting observation: sexual references are littered throughout the novel. Far more than I remember reading in other novels for a long time. This, perhaps, says more about the other novels that I've been reading rather than the amount of sex in Half of a Yellow Sun.

Most of this review sounds quite critical, more so than some of my other reviews. Maybe it just had more personal bite for me, and maybe I like that because it's the novel I've enjoyed reading most so far this year.

Publication details:
This copy: My own; Fourth estate, 2014