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A reader's guide to Half Of A Yellow Sun

Updated Monday 1st December 2008

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes us to the 1967 Nigeria-Biafra war, for a book that can sometimes be a difficult read.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. It takes its title from the Biafran emblem: a sun midway through rising.

The story moves between sections set in the early 1960s and the period of the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970). The focus is on five main characters: Odenigbo, a university lecturer; his lover, Olanna; their houseboy, Ugwu; Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene, and her white English boyfriend, Richard Churchill.

Their peaceful and prosperous lifestyle is shattered by the conflict and reshaped by hardship and deprivation. Adichie conveys the horror and violence of the civil war, particularly in terms of its impact upon civilians.

The Biafran Army, in 1967 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC
Soldiers from the Biafran Army pictured in 1967

Scenes describing massacres, rapes, famine and disease make painful reading; however, the characters gradually learn to appreciate what really matters in life.

The book raises disturbing questions about moral responsibility, colonialism, class and ethnic divisions, belonging and exclusion, love and betrayal. Richard is receptive to the achievements of pre-colonial African societies, and desperately wants to ‘belong’ in Kainene’s culture. He considers writing a history of the conflict; but another question is posed: is the story his to tell?

One key theme concerns forgiveness and reconciliation. This has a resonance for the nation; the two sisters also have to resolve problems on a personal level, and Ugwu will ultimately struggle with his conscience.

Adichie has said: ‘If there’s such a thing as an anti-war book, this is it, but it must succeed primarily as a work of art.’ Does she succeed? Share your views on the forum.

Background

BBC Nigerian Correspondent Barnaby Philips visted the site of the conflicts in 2000

 

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