Fresh off listening to Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I loved, I downloaded the audiobook of Half of a Yellow Sun, which won her the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2007. This was also read by Adjoa Andoh, who read the last one so beautifully.
Half of a Yellow Sun, set in 1960s Nigeria, explores the lives of three very different characters – Ugwu, a poor young boy who becomes the houseboy of university lecturer Odenigbo; Olanna, a beautiful and educated woman from a wealthy family, whose relationship with her twin sister Kainene, so different in many ways from her, moves between loving and strained; and Richard, an Englishman living, and researching art, in Nigeria. As the novel unfolds, their lives intersect and intertwine in various ways, and we see each of them evolving in very different ways. Familial and romantic relationships are tested, as are loyalties; desire burns; facades crumble; and the striving for survival is explored in all its many guises.
While the first half of the novel builds up the characters’ stories and back-stories, moving back and forth in time to give us a deeper understanding of who they are, and of their pasts that have shaped them, the second half is very much about the Biafran war. Adichie deftly explores the volatile environment created when pre-existing tensions came to a head in the years following decolonisation, yet the focus remains the rippling repercussions for families, friends, lovers, colleagues, neighbours and business associates. This is not an easy listen/read, as Adichie unflinchingly captures the displacement, violence, starvation, degradation and horrifying losses endured by people, as well as the voids left without hope for closure as people simply disappeared. She captures this through our main characters, but also the many supporting characters they encounter along the way, giving a sense of just a fraction of the people caught up in, and deeply affected by, this brutal war. As with Americanah, Adichie’s storytelling and character-building is superb and completely engrossing. We feel for her characters and we feel with them through the emotional power of her writing.
There is so much sadness in this book, but also so much strength and depth, making this a story and set of characters that really stay with you. Half of a Yellow Sun has now confirmed that Adichie is a go-to author for me, and I’m aiming to make my way through her full catalogue of works in the near future.
Half of a Yellow Sun was published by Harper Collins in 2006.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. She was awarded a Hodder fellowship at Princeton University for the 2005-2006 academic year, and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University for the 2011-2012 academic year. In 2008, she received a MacArthur Fellowship. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013. Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. Full bio here