Not so long ago Indian and Indian-American writers were all the rage in literary circles. Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy—they all found their way onto the shelves and e-screens of hundreds of thousands of American readers. Today it appears that African writers are showing signs of rivaling their eastern contemporaries, and few among them has achieved as much attention as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her brilliant novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, paints a vivid picture of one of the most consequential events in the history of post-independence Africa.
Half of a Yellow Sun recounts the events of the 1960s that culminated in the lopsided Biafran war of independence (1967-70) that pitted the ill-equipped Igbo (Ibo) people of southeastern Nigeria against the massive forces of their national government, actively backed by the British. This is the gripping story of twin Igbo sisters, Olanna and Kainene, daughters of a Nigerian “Big Man” who has accumulated great wealth through corruption; their lovers, Odenigbo and Richard, the one an Igbo professor of mathematics who preaches revolution, the other a Brit and would-be writer; and young Ugwu, a villager who grows to manhood as Odenigbo’s houseboy.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2008) 562 pages ★★★★★
A gripping account of post-independence Africa
In this compelling novel, the action shifts back and forth from the early sixties, shortly after Nigeria gained its independence from Britain, to the time of war. Gradually, the reader comes to understand the roots of wartime events as the narrative delves more deeply into the secrets that shadow Olanna and Kainene’s very different lives.
Though little remembered in the USA today, the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s was a signature event of the times. Following the massacre of thousands of Igbo living or traveling in Nigeria’s north by the dominant Hausa-speaking people, the Igbo-dominated southeast declared its independence, establishing the nation of Biafra. Despite recognition from many African nations and humanitarian aid from the West, the 13.5 million people of Biafra were ill-matched against Nigeria with more than three times the population and military support from Harold Wilson’s Britain.
Nigeria’s principal weapon in the war was starvation. More than a million civilians died. This was just part of the price paid by the people of the region for the creation of Nigeria in 1911 when the British Governor-General merged the south and north and his wife named the result.
About the author
Author of the current US best-seller, Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received her education in her native Nigeria as well as the United States. She was born in 1977, seven years after the conclusion of the events related in Half of a Yellow Sun. Extensive reading as well as her parents’ recollections of the Biafran war of independence form the basis of her novel.
For further reading
You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19 as well as on my list of The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.
This is one of 20 top books about Africa, including both fiction and nonfiction.
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels.
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