I read this book as part of the 2008 Expanding Horizons Challenge (see sidebar). I was particularly interested in that challenge for, while I am an ardent lover of history and culture, I have so far mainly stayed in England, with jaunts into France and Spain, and the extremely occasional journeys to Asia. This challenge pushes me to taste so many different places and cultures.
Freak that I am, I like to do everything in some sort of order. And for this list I chose to read these books in alphabetical order according to ethnic category. As such, Africa comes first. Half of a Yellow Sun is set during the Nigerian/Biafron war of the late 60's, focusing on the intermingled lives of five characters: Odenigbo, a revolutionary academic; Olanna, his high class lover; Ugwu, his houseboy; Kainene, Olanna's willful twin sister; and Richard, Kainene's British lover. The narrative is told through the eyes of Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard, rotating between chapters.
I really enjoyed reading this book. As I alluded to before, this is an area I really have no knowledge about, which made the reading both interesting and frustrating. There was quite a bit about the Nigerian politics that I didn't understand, such as the causes of the two coups and the hatred between the different Nigerian peoples.
I specifically enjoyed that this book showed three extremely different points of view. All three of these people were going through the same sorts of circumstances (the challenges and hardships of the Nigerian/Biafran war), all three were on the same side (that of the Biafrans), yet all three, due to who they were, had to view the war in such different ways. Olanna chose to stay behind in Biafra when her parents were offering to take her away to London, to safety. She had options, she had people she could turn to for help in the worst of times. Ugwu's fate was continually chosen for him. Wherever "Master" and "Mah" took him, he would go. When his towns were forced to evacuate, it was not home to his family he went, it was on to Odenigbo's family. This same essence of non-control followed him in his conscription into the army. While his day to day life changed rapidly after that occurrence, the obedience to his outside forces did not. And last of all Richard, the outsider. Through the whole book, he tried so hard to be one of the Biafrans, but eventually he figured out, and summed up in his statement to Ugwu, "the war is not my story to tell." And it never was.
While I greatly appreciated the difference between life in the early '60's where we saw the characters unfold and life in the late '60's where we saw the characters change due to the war, I did not understand that author's decision to jump from early to late than back to early and then late again. Maybe these jumps were a way of compounding the importance of both Odenigbo's and then Olanna and Richard's betrayals. Maybe we wanted to see that Olanna had completely taken Baby into her home and her heart. However, I feel the story would have flowed a great deal more if things had just gone chronologically.
I feel the end of the story was incredibly beautifully and tragically told. I like that, just like Olanna and Richard, we are left not knowing what happened to Kainene. And I felt it was justified for Ugwu to come home and find himself on both sides of his dirty deed.
After reading this book, I wholeheartedly agree with one of Kainene's sentiments. This book really does depict some true horrors of war, some truly unspeakable and unforgivable events. War can make people do things they never would have done. But in the face of such heinous acts, past actions that should have been unforgivable are forgiven.