This is one of the most vivid, absorbing, and excruciatingly painful books I've read in a long time. Set in Nigeria during the 1960s, it revolves around twin sisters: Olanna and Kainene, daughters of a wealthy Igbo chief and businessman. It alternates among three points of view. First, there is Ugwu, houseboy to Olanna's lover, Odenigbo, a revolutionary professor. Ugwu comes from a village where a corrugated iron roof on a mud hut is a tremendous luxury, so he revels in the relative opulence of Odenigbo's modest house. Odenigbo's home becomes a salon where local intellectuals gather to talk, and Ugwu, who is keenly intelligent, absorbs everything going on around him. Second, we see the story through Olanna's eyes. Third, it is told from the point of view of Richard, Kainene's English expatriate lover.
The author skillfully navigates the perspectives of these three people, from vastly different backgrounds, portraying Nigeria in a time of a brutal civil war and genocide. This author did a phenomenal job of describing the progression of the war and how it affected everyone -- from a wealthy chief's family to peasants. Watching their suffering increase, I felt the tightening fear, helplessness, frustration, and outrage. The effect is heightened by unforgettable images -- ragged soldiers holding fake wooden rifles, sick, malnourished babies with thinning hair and swollen bellies, and the head of a murdered girl, hair lovingly braided, which her mother carries in a basket.
While this book is obviously painful to read, I did enjoy it -- it was not a "fun" read, but it was pleasurable and gratifying. I loved the vivid, complex characters and the vibrantly described landscape. I also savored the author's skillful use of language, the suspense, and the flow of the story.
This is only one dimension of my experience with this novel. It was my introduction to Nigeria and Biafra, a part of the country that seceded from Nigeria and formed an independent nation. I wrote here about why I love multicultural literature so much. I enjoy learning about history and other cultures through various venues, including non-fiction, movies, and television, but well crafted novels are my favorite. The combination of taking a journey to another time and place and reading about familiar life experiences -- falling in love, coping with betrayal, caring for a child, and wading through grief -- makes the setting and the events described a part of me.
One of the things that amazed me most about Half of a Yellow Sun was the complex and jarringly believable way the author explored grief and human evil. There are many shades of grief here. We see the kind that swallows you and cripples you. And we see people learning of deaths and continuing as if nothing happened, because tragedy has simply become part of the fabric of daily life. This novel explores variations of evil, from murder and cruelty to staying silent, in another part of the world, while atrocities take place. We also get a glimpse of a heinous crime committed by a character who is not evil. This is ugly and painful, but it helps me understand humanity better.
This is a brilliant novel, with deeply flawed characters who are vividly painted, moments of sensuality and joy, and a picture of evil and suffering that is gut-wrenching, but also illuminating. It does what phenomenal novels do -- it helps us understand humanity, and our history, a bit better by taking us along on a journey that is both foreign and wrenchingly familiar.
Read More Reviews: SmallWorld Reads; Ready When You Are, C.B.; Maw Books Blog; Kiss a Cloud; Non-Fiction Five Challenge; She Treads Softly; Farm Lane Books Blog; Musings of a Bookish Kitty; Page 247; Fizzy Thoughts; Lotus Reads; Things Mean a Lot; The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
|5- Cherished Favorite||4 - Keep in My Library||3 - Good Read||2 - Meh||1 - Definitely Not|