Note: this review contains some “spoilers,” so if you prefer suspense, you may want to come back to this AFTER reading the book itself. If, however, you are like me, and can’t concentrate on the book until you know what’s going on, feel free to read ahead!
In his review of Half of a Yellow Sun for The Morning News’ Tournament of Books, Brady Udall makes the observation, that “[f]or a war novel there is a distressing surplus of discourse, with characters holding forth in long paragraphs on subjects like Marxism, European colonialism, and tribal politics.” I have to say, that this sentence caught my attention, for in my opinion, it does a bit of disservice to Adichie’s work to categorize it in such a simplistic manner. Yes, Half of a Yellow Sun is about war and the ways in which the ravages of violence can quickly pervade a family, community, country, etc., but in many respects, I feel that it is also a novel about ideas, the transmission of those ideas, and the ways in which those ideas play out in a practical sense in the “real” world. Thus, it is vitally important that the first part of the novel focuses on the daily lives of these academic revolutionaries, who do sit around the radio engaging in a “surplus of discourse” involving the politics and various -isms that Udall mentions above. It sets the stage for the way in which the realities of war (the hunger, the pervasive death and terror) often seem to betray the ideals of revolution (or in this case the secession of Biafra from Nigeria, 1967-1970).
The pacing of Adichie’s novel really reflected (for me) the descent into chaos once war began. For the first half of the novel, Adichie sets the scene, introducing us to the major characters, giving us glimpses into their everyday lives. We meet Odenigbo, the revolutionary academic, and Ugwu, his houseboy. Olanna, a fellow academic, is also Odenigbo’s lover. And we meet Richard, an Englishman, who is also the lover of Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister. Adichie seems to enjoy “pairing” in this novel: we have Olanna/Kainene, Odenigbo/Ugwu, Odenigbo/Richard, and a pairing that really struck me, that of Richard/Ugwu. Richard is a writer, entranced with a vision of Africa as he perceives it through the “rope pot” as an artistic artifact. Richard is also impotent on occasion, both in a sexual sense as well as an authorial sense. He writes page upon page, but his story has no cohesiveness (we are told), he can’t seem to make sense of his experience, and ultimately, he ends up with little more than a title, which Ugwu later appropriates for his own work (and to a far more effective end).
Ugwu fascinated me as a character, particularly near the end of the book as his connection to writing/storytelling/reading became more apparent. [spoiler alert–stop reading now if you don’t want to have anything given away]. The scenes in which he is conscripted as a soldier were especially compelling for me. Adichie’s use of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative was brilliant, exposing the ways in which forcing men and boys to fight in a war that has, by that point, become so ill-defined, is something akin to slavery. Ugwu’s connection to Douglass’s narrative kept him anchored in a way, allowing him to keep some semblance of his former self, unlike the soldiers around him, who have lost their identities to their actions. We meet Kill-and-go and High Tech, two people who no longer have actual names, but are merely defined by what they seem to do best as soldiers (much like Africans were stripped of their African names when they were enslaved in the U.S.). It is when High Tech uses the first page of Douglass’s treasured book as paper for his cigarette that Ugwu loses his anchor, thus losing himself. This transformation is marked by him committing an act that he did not want to (and which, as readers, we have been led to believe he never would have in normal circumstances). In return he is given the new name of Target Destroyer. It is only through injury that Ugwu becomes is redeemed. Olanna and Odenigbo think he has died (and in a sense, the persona of Target Destroy has died) that Ugwu returns to life, although one that is forever scarred by his experience as a soldier and the deeds he committed as one.
Unlike Richard, Ugwu is able to write productively. He begins to record the stories of his fellow Africans, and as Olanna notes in this scene,
“Ugwu was writing as she [Olanna] spoke, and his writing, the earnestness of his interest, suddenly made her story important, made it serve a larger purpose that even she was not sure of, and so she told him all she remembered about the train full of people who had cried and shouted and urinated on themselves” (410).
Ugwu’s writing is powerful and seems to serve a purpose (albeit one that is still not clear), whereas Richard’s own earnest interest leads him nowhere. Perhaps this is because Ugwu is interested in the “real” stories of “real” people, recording the gritty details of life, while Richard was driven by his idealized image of Africa and Africans, and thus found himself writing a manuscript that was essentially empty of any sense of reality. Richard was driven by his intrinsically European intellectual interest in the “magnificent roped pot” (56), and was thus frustrated when his attempts to grasp what he perceived to be the “real” Africa left him holding little more than the idea he started out with, an idea he couldn’t seem to root in any sort of reality; indeed, it largely blinded him to the very details of life that Ugwu’s writing elevated. Moreover, I felt that the “realness” of Ugwu’s writing was underscored by the fact that he scribbled on whatever scraps of paper were at hand and he often wrote outside, under the shade of a tree. Richard, on the other hand, was sealed off in his study (particularly in the early part of the novel), surrounded by paper, books, and a typewriter–accouterments that only serve to cage his imagination and distance him from the Africa outside his window.
As you can see, I feel that Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredibly rich novel, although its full impact didn’t strike me until I had finished the book and mulled it over. I did find myself lagging in some parts (particularly early on), but in the end, I can’t wait to read this over again, to mine the riches I know are there. However, given that I have 19 other books in this challenge, perhaps a good rereading should be postponed for another occasion….
I do recommend this book, and as a shout-out to Apparent Dip and the classic tv show “The Reading Rainbow” I feel compelled to say: “But don’t take my word for it….”