Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
audiobook narrated by Zainab Jah
published by Penguin Random House
2007 (audiobook in 2017)
How could anything as horrific as a civil war make for such an engrossing, heartfelt book? I am touched, moved, horrified, pained, and I zealously recommend this novel.
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of two women, non-identical twins with a privileged background, living their lives in recently independent Nigeria in the 1960s. One is a university professor who is deeply in love with a political firebrand with a scheming, old-fashioned family that wants him to be with an uneducated woman; the other is a savvy businesswoman and fixer, stepping into her father’s role in the corrupt business world. We get to know them, their lovers, and their households well, the steady patterns of their comfortable lives, the awe in which their rural house staff view them…
And then massacres begin. Massacres of the Igbo people, the ethnic group these characters all belong to within a diverse, post-colonial Nigeria.
It’s clear that the new nation, with many of its persistent, colonial-era power imbalances between groups, cannot stand – the Igbo can’t share a government with people who kill them while calling them infidels. Biafra, a new nation for the Igbo and other southeastern groups, is declared… and a slow-motion disaster unfolds, as Nigeria won’t let them go, the military intervenes, and the major powers of the world take sides – and nearly all take the side of Nigeria against Biafra.
By making the decline personal, by seeing these sisters and those they care about take up the cause of their new nation, and then gradually have their world destroyed, is brutal. The decline, the horror, the hardships, the atrocities, reading about their (fictional but representative) experience of it all while knowing how badly it ended in real life – it is gutting.
I listened to the audiobook version, brilliantly performed by Zainab Jah. Her presentation of the Igbo phrases, the local and British accents, pleading children, shouty-old-ladies ordering people around or accusing them of witchcraft, the swearing Americans – her performance was FANTASTIC!
This is a brilliant novel, and a forever timely reminder of both the damage done by the empires of the past and the absence of a peaceful path for self-determination for groups of all types today, who are trapped indefinitely within the borders of a previous century.