Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (published 2006) tells the story of the Nigerian Civil War, when the minority, repressed Igbos in Southeastern Nigeria established the independent republic of Biafra.

My understanding of the war comes from my reading of the novel, but I did also reference Wikipedia. (Adichie mentions in an interview that she purposely kept it non-academic, so that is why there are few dates, no maps, and no “glossary” of terms in the novel itself.)  It is often the case with fiction that you only get one side of the story. Yet in Adichie’s novel, I felt that much that was unsaid could still be understood.  Half of a Yellow Sun portrayed Biafra as a patriotic solution for the racism and oppression that the Igbo dealt with, and the Biafran succession came after serious massacres of Igbos throughout the country of Nigeria.

From what I’ve read, the sad side is that Biafra’s story is one of starvation, for because of the lack of widespread international recognition, a blockade meant millions of people in Biafra were without food. Biafra’s story is one of failed uprising, for because of lack of proper supplies, the Biafran war effort was essentially doomed from the start. And Biafra’s story is about corrupted leaders, for because of the lack of truthful communication, Biafran citizens didn’t quite realize the extent of the hopelessness.

But these tragedies, much of which is experienced but left unsaid in Half of a Yellow Sun, are only the backdrop for a story of hope. The title comes from the Biafran flag:

Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future. (page 352)

Half of a Yellow Sun leaves the reader with a feeling of hope for the “glorious future,” maybe not for the state of Biafra but for the essential relationships that matter, from sisterhood to the intimacy of lovers to parents and friends. In the midst of unspeakable and violent tragedy, the upper-middle class twin sisters that Adichie writes about learn to love each other again. Half of a Yellow Sun is an story of survival.

Adichie takes the creative step of writing with a non-chronological structure, as she moves from the early 1960s to the later 1960s (during the beginning of the war), then back to the early 1960s and then again to the later 1960s. The effect of this is a sense of foreboding: how and why did the sisters become antagonistic to each other? We see how the characters change by the contrast between the sections.

Interspersed in these out-of-chronology sections are brief sections (less than a page) of summary of another book called “The World Was Silent When We Died.” This gives the war a sense of foreboding and provides historical context for the war that we, as modern readers, know will come to the main characters. I didn’t like these sections when I began reading; they seemed out of place in the context of the rest of the novel. But as I came to the end of the novel, I found I enjoyed the digressions. While the non-chronological structure of the novel as a whole gave a sense of mystery to the twin sister’s relationships, the book summaries gave a sense of mystery and context to the war.

*Minor spoiler paragraph* I wanted the book to end happily, and although at first glance it didn’t, it had so much hope that I couldn’t help being satisfied at the ending, despite the lump in my throat. So much of the book was discouraging. Even though I knew that in the end Biafra would lose the war, I hoped that the sisters and their families would all end up in a happy place. Even when there were two pages left, I wished for that happy place. In the end, it wasn’t as happy as I wished, and I was crying for the characters that I had come to love. Nonetheless, the most important things were realized, that one can survive and that one can continue to love, despite horrendous obstacles.

Half of a Yellow Sun has a lot of sex in it. I often don’t like modern fiction because of the excessive sex; it’s one of the reasons I like to stick with the classics, which are safe from that for the most part. Sex is one of those things that I think is somewhat inappropriate and nearly impossible to capture on paper, and I don’t like reading passages that describe it. So readers should be forewarned that Half of a Yellow Sun is no exception to the “modern fiction equals lots of sex” category.

That said, just like some other modern books that I really enjoy (Possession and One Hundred Years of Solitude come to mind), the sex in Half of a Yellow Sun is wonderfully written and completely relevant. In the midst of war, people continue loving. Because Adichie captures relationships so completely, it gives the book an aspect of hope. Because of the sex in Half of a Yellow Sun, we see that war is not completely hopeless. People learn to forgive and people find refuge in love.

I realize that I have not touched on many of the important plot aspects of Half of a Yellow Sun, but that is because it is a book that requires rereading. It’s not as confusing as, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I still don’t understand after a reread (expect incoherent but praise-filled thoughts on that tomorrow). But the realistic and complex relationships Adichie writes about cannot be comprehensibly considered when ones only read of them once. I was impressed with Adichie’s writing from the first page, and while I don’t love reading about the horrors of war (in fact, I hate it), this was a story that needed to be told. Adichie did a wonderful job.

Listen to an NPR interview

I loved hearing Adichie’s voice and hearing her talk about the book! She reads from her book too (a spoiler section): she is such a beautiful reader!

Other Links

  • Interview (transcript) with Robert Birnham. Fascinating because it contains Adichie’s opinions about Nigeria, past and present. She also talks about her opinions of Nigeria in the context of Africa as a whole and how she felt about coming to the U.S. (She didn’t internalize racial difference, and notice that she was “black,” for example, until a woman in a bookstore said to her, “Have you seen the African-American section?” )
  • Q&A on Official Half of a Yellow Sun site
  • Q&A on an unofficial site
Reviewed on October 25, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I agree that this was an important story, and that the writing was beautiful, but I just didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped to. I do think that the ending was the right one though. As much as I wanted things to be happily ever after, that is not the way life is. Adichie was still able to convey hope despite all the tragedy, and that is the way life is.

    • Heather J., I don’t think I loved it as much as I’d hoped either. But it may be one I appreciate more on a reread, if I can take it. I’m not particularly looking forward to the reread, though. It is just so poignant. I really wanted happily ever after too….

  • I have to admit, I really want to read something by this author and this book is first on the list, but I’m scared of it at the same time. I don’t generally like books about war. I plan to get this one from the library first before acquiring it in any way, and I wonder if once again I’ll be the only person to not like a universally popular book…

    • Amanda, I don’t think this is a universally loveable book at all because there is so much violence in it. (There are lots of high ratings but goodreads seems to have some mixed reactions and some “hate” comments). I know you don’t like gore, so it really might not be for you, I don’t know. I mention there is lots of sex but there is also waaaay more violence. The violence didn’t bother me so much though. It’s very straight forward and I can take that. Adichie says in one of the interviews I link to that she didn’t want to gloss around the reality of the war, and she certainly doesn’t. One woman sees a mother carrying her child’s head in a bowl, another sees a running man’s head explode thanks to a shell that hit him, and there is at least one incident of rape. If you can’t handle matter-of-fact descriptions (there are many more bits of violence), by all means DON’T read this book! It could be very disturbing.

  • I loved this story so well and I think Adichie intersected those sex scenes and other excesses so as not to burden the reader with solely the facts and figures of the war. Rebecca, would you agree with me?

    • Geoffrey, hmm, well I HATE novels that just through in sex to give it variety, so I think Adichie was doing more here. I think she wrote it as she did to show that war ISN’T just about war. That people keep loving, despite the horrors.

  • I really need to read Half of a Yellow Sun. It sounds like a book I’d like, as well as an important book. I’m not always the biggest fan of war books, but I think when they are well done I learn a lot from them.

  • Fantastic review, Rebecca. I haven’t read anything by Adichie, but she is on my list of authors to try, especially after reading Eva’s effusive reviews, and now yours too. I think it’s great that you enjoyed this book so much and got so much from it, even when it contained elements that normally turn you away from a book. You’ve definitely bumped this one up my pile!

  • So glad that you enjoyed this book. Adichie is my favorite writer, she is just incredible. This is definitely a book to re-read time and time again!

  • I saw Adichie at Printer’s Row this summer and I agree she is a great speaker (and beautiful).

    I liked (didn’t love) this novel and I think it gives a perspective of Africa we don’t see — there is more than just poverty and war.

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