Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brings a lucid intelligence and compassion to the painful history of Biafra in Half of a Yellow Sun.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's luminous and formidable talent was first seen in Purple Hibiscus, her 2004 novel about a childhood devastated by a religious patriarch, which won a Commonwealth writers' prize and was shortlisted for the Orange prize. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, takes its title from the emblem for Biafra, the breakaway state in eastern Nigeria that survived for only three years, and whose name became a global byword for war by starvation. Adichie's powerful focus on war's impact on civilian life, and the trauma beyond the trenches, earns this novel a place alongside such works as Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Helen Dunmore's depiction of the Leningrad blockade, The Siege.
Adichie takes her time in reaching the privations of war. Covering the decade to the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70, the novel first develops its characters in a period of peace and - for some - plenty after Nigerian independence in 1960. Among the protagonists are Odenigbo, or "the Master", a radical maths lecturer at the University of Nsukka - in what became the secessionist Igbo land - and Ugwu, the village teenager who becomes his houseboy, but whom he enrolls at the university staff school. A novel that descends into dire hunger begins with Ugwu's devoted creativity in the kitchen, confecting pepper soup, spicy jollof rice and chicken boiled in herbs. Beer and brandy flow as he serves the Master's friends while absorbing snippets of intellectual debate in the era of Sharpeville, de Gaulle in Algeria and the struggle for US civil rights.
Ugwu's domain is encroached upon by Odenigbo's lover, Olanna, the London-educated daughter of a "nouveau riche" businessman in Lagos, and the household is later disrupted by its links with Olanna's periodically estranged twin sister Kainene and her English boyfriend, Richard.
Ethnic differences are signalled between the mainly Igbo protagonists - whose persistent switching between English and Igbo languages is wonderfully conveyed - and those such as Odenigbo's Yoruba colleague, Miss Adebayo, and Olanna's ex-boyfriend from the north, the Hausa prince Mohammed. These differences assume lethal significance after the ostensibly Igbo-led 1966 military coup, which becomes a pretext for anti-Igbo pogroms after the counter-coup six months later. As Olanna and others become caught up in the violence, the novel captures horror in the details of "vaguely familar clothes on headless bodies", or corpses' "odd skin tone - a flat, sallow grey, like a poorly wiped blackboard".
As Biafran secession "for security" brings a refugee crisis, a retaliatory Nigerian blockade and all-out war, and the world (bar Tanzania) refuses to recognise the fledgling state, the focus is on the characters' grief, resilience and fragmenting relationships. Tending her adopted daughter, Olanna endures the descent into one-room squalor, food-aid queues and air raids without self-pity. But there is anger at the "bleakness of bombing hungry people", and the deadly kwashiorkor, malnutrition that afflicts children, dubbed "Harold Wilson syndrome" for the former colonial power's complicity. While Ugwu's forced conscription involves him in an atrocity whose legacy is lasting shame, the issue of forgiveness between the twin sisters subtly echoes that of warring political groups.
A history of colonisation is alluded to, not least in the tragicomic figure of Richard's anglophile servant Harrison, who prides himself on serving roast beef and rhubarb crumble, but adapts in wartime to roasting lizards and bush rats "as though they were rack of lamb". While Richard identifies with Biafra and intends to write the history of the war, it is Ugwu who takes up the pen and the mantle. As Richard concedes, "The war isn't my story to tell really," and Ugwu nods. "He had never thought that it was."
There are other quiet revolutions in the novel. Odenigbo, the "revolutionary freedom fighter" with endless certainty and self-belief, succumbs to drink and despair, while the seemingly compliant Olanna draws on profound strengths. The master-servant relationship is upended, as the "houseboy" returns with fondness and irony the Master's way of addressing him as "my good man".
The novel's structure, moving in chunks between the late and early 60s, is not without blips. At times I wondered how far Ugwu's omnivorous reading was reflected in his development. But these are quibbles in a landmark novel, whose clear, undemonstrative prose can so precisely delineate nuance. There is a rare emotional truth in the sexual scenes, from Ugwu's adolescent forays and the mature couples' passions, to the ugliness of rape.
Literary reflections on the Biafra war have a long and distinguished history, from the most famous poet to have died in the war, Christopher Okigbo, to Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and Flora Nwapa. Born in 1977, Adichie is part of a new generation revisiting the history that her parents survived. She brings to it a lucid intelligence and compassion, and a heartfelt plea for memory.