Those who loved the understated, quiet prose of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus will not be disappointed by her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Winner of the 2007 Orange Prize, besting work by such notables as Anne Tyler and Kiran Desai, the novel is full of halves—characters, and a nation—wandering in search of what might complete them. And as the novel shifts from the early to the late sixties, the period of Nigeria’s civil war, Adichie deftly shows how wars can dismember both self and country, removing victims and perpetrators alike from their lives and identities. She fills her characters’ lives with memento mori—flowers wilt, children grow sick and die, clouds disintegrate, weevils taint food that runs out—while all these halves build toward a final loss so quiet that it slipped into my dreams.
To represent her historical Nigeria, Adichie presents three rotating viewpoint characters: Ugwu, a poor rural boy taken in and educated by his employer; Richard, a white British writer researching Nigerian art and trying to compose a history of Nigeria; and Olanna, a young innocent in love with an idealistic Nigerian professor. Surprising themselves as the war begins and endures, as famine and violence spread, these characters change in ways unforeseeable yet utterly true. The traumas of war and death, of strained race relations and lost ideals compound until we find them at the end, irreversibly altered and bereft. The grace and honesty of Adichie’s portrayal compels those of us who look upon Africa from outside to re-examine our easy indignation, our dismissive impatience, with “internal strife” on the continent. In Half of a Yellow Sun, she gives us a wise book about the costs of patriotism and idealism—and the way all our lives are lived, constrained by the tangled web of history.