On January 15, 1966 there was a military coup in Nigeria. Initiated by junior Igbo officers, it overturned the conservative alliance between leading Hausa and Igbo politicians which had maintained (something resembling) peace and order in the country since its independence (in 1960). It was an almost complete failure. Subsequently, growing ethnic, economic and religious tensions between Nigeria's dominant tribal factions - the Christian Igbo, who came predominantly from the southeast of the country, and the Muslim Hausa who came from the north - bubbled over. In July there was a counter-coup by Hausa officers, followed by large-scale massacres of Igbo men, women and children in the north of the country. The death toll was staggering.
The following May, 1967, the military governor of the Igbo-dominated south-east, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, declared his regions' seccession from Nigeria as the independent Republic of Biafra. It was an act of extroadinary defiance and, perhaps at the time, necessity. The newly created Biafrans, buoyed on a rhetoric of hope and independence, chose half of a yellow sun - a rising sun? - as their flag's symbol. What followed, however, was a bloody three year war with Nigeria, leading to upwards of 1 million Biafran dead - some from military actions, but most from starvation. So great was the humanitarian crisis that it inspired the foundation of Medecins-sans-Frontieres, the charity dedicated to providing emergency medical assistance.
It is this sadly proto-typical tragedy that forms the backdrop to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's moving second novel Half of a Yellow Sun. It begins in the early 1960s and runs through to 1970, charting the impact of the Nigerian-Biafran war on a pair of Igbo twins, Olanna and Kainene Ozobia, the only daughters of a wealthy westernised family. Raised between Lagos and London, speaking English as their first language, they both have Masters degrees from the London School of Economics and are determined to live their lives as they choose. Olanna - beautiful, blessed with grace and magnimity - accepts a job teaching Sociology at the newly-founded University of Nigeria in Nsukka in order to be with her intellectual lover, a maths professor called Odenigbo, while Kainene - unattractive, prickly but enigmatic - moves to Port Harcourt to manage part of her father's business and to be close to her partner Richard Churchill, a white man who is writing a book about Igbo art. After the massacres, in which they suffer personal loss, and following the declaration of Biafra, both couples throw themselves into the war effort in the south-east, pitifully convinced of their eventual victory. Even as their world crumbles around them and their friends and family die one by one, even as they struggle to find food and housing, they continue to invest in hope for the future.
Not a jolly book then. No, certainly not. But not a morbid documentary of tragedy either - the realities of the Nigerian-Biafran war cast their terrible shadows over Half of a Yellow Sun but never so much as to eclipse Adichie characters or their personal dramas. This is by and large a product of its narration and of how Adichie structures the book: we are kept company by three 'point-of-view' characters - Olanna, Richard Churchill and Odenigbo's house-boy, Ugwu - who dominate alternating chapters and bring us in close to their individual perspectives. First there is Ugwu, who comes into the novel as uncertain and curious as any reader, a boy from the bush who speaks little English and knows almost nothing about Nigerian politics. Brought to Odenigbo's spacious western-style house by his Aunt at the age of thirteen and introduced to running water, flushing toilets and the written word, he falls in love with the idea of plenty:
Ugwu turned off the tap, turned it on again, then off. On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and the bread that lay balmy in his stomach. He went past the living room and into the corridor. There were books piled on the shelves and tables in the three bedrooms, on the sink and cabinets in the bathroom, stacked from floor to ceiling in the study and in the storeroom, old journals were stacked next to crates of Coke and cartons of Premier beer... He walked on tiptoe from room to room, because his feet felt dirty, and he as he did so he grew increasingly determined to please Master, to stay in this house of meat and cold floors. He was examining the toilet, running his hand over the black plastic seat, when he heard Master's voice.
'Where are you, my good man?' He said my good man in English.
Ugwu dashed out to the living room. 'Yes, sah!'
His is the novel's voice of innocence, of naive possibility. Odenigbo, liberal and progressive, sends him to primary school to learn to read, and then to secondary school, and even offers to send him to university when the time comes. And because Ugwu is bright and prepossessing, he earns first Odenigbo's, and then Olanna's, affection; he becomes a member of their family, their servant still but with emotional ties. They trust him implicitly with their daughter, Baby, for whom he acts as cook and nanny, and when the war begins they shelter him from conscription into the army. Yet, he remains worlds apart from his adopted family - he is no longer an ignorant bushman, but nor is he a middle class intellectual, neither a bird nor a fish. He retains some of his people's beliefs - in evil spirits and the magical powers of witches and 'dibia' (priests) - but rejects others. He is powerful because of his employer and his connections, and powerless because of his low social standing. In many ways, the war dissolves all of these categories and allows Ugwu to give birth to himself as an independent and moral being - his innocence which, at times, seems to approach a kind of stupidity, is knocked away to reveal something harder and more defined. Eventually, somewhat inevitably, he becomes a writer.
Similarly Olanna (and also Kainene, although she has no POV voice of her own) for whom the war is a spiritual and ethical battle. Before the massacres in 1966, she lives a comfortable if faintly rebellious life with Odenigbo in Nsukka - they hold intellectual parties for other faculty members and rail against the government in Lagos, the colonial legacy and Britain's disastrous policies in Africa. But their discussions, though passionate, are removed from the reality, are hypothetical and academic. It isn't until she is caught up in massacres in the northern city of Kano, and sees her own aunt, uncle and pregnant cousin cut down in the street by a neighbour, that she realises the implications of Nigeria's political rumbling. It isn't until then that the discussions over brandy about tribalism and democracy gain a human dimension. At first she is completely disabled by her experience, suffering from psychological paralysis in her lower body as well as violent panic attacks, but gradually, as she is called upon to cope with disaster for her daughter's sake, she becomes practical and assertive. The massacres at Kano strip her down to her essential parts: her instinct for survival, and her instinct to protect the people she loves. Indeed, she becomes more like her sister Kainene - harsher, skinnier, more realistic - made out of steel and self-belief.
The sisters show themselves to be far stronger and far more determined than their men-folk. The weakest character in the novel - designedly so - is Kainene's boyfriend, Richard. He came to Africa in the early 60s on little more than a whim to write a book about Igbo art or, more specifically, their traditional roped pots which he admires for their ‘strange rococo, almost Fabergé-like virtuosity’. He despises the condescending way in which his fellow ex-pats view Nigerian culture, although, of course, he is as guilty as anyone else of exoticising and infantilising the Igbo - he can't help but 'marvel' that they could have produced the beauty of the roped pots with such 'primitive' tools. His relationship with Kainene is marked by his desire to submit to her, to be dominated by her 'otherness'; he ponders repeatedly on her distant and imperious 'blackness' as though she is some ur-woman, a veritable She. And although he tries very hard to become Biafran, to 'go native' and to write the story of the war from an indigenous viewpoint, he comes to realise that his whiteness is too much a barrier - that he will always be a foreigner - and, symbolically, hands his writer's mantle to Ugwu, a bona-fide African. The product is a history of the war entitled The World was Silent when we Died.
His is the most pathetic trajectory in the novel but not the most devastating. That belongs to Odenigbo whose grand beliefs and ideological rhetoric are crushed to death by the war. Before the massacres but after the coup he is something of a political leader in Nsukka, giving speeches and hosting his famous soirees, but when the war begins he finds himself a mere cog in the wheel of the 'Manpower Directorate'. While his best friends rise to positions of influence, he remains relatively low-down in Biafra's government, slaving away at monotonous administrative tasks. As it becomes clear that the war is all but lost he looses his books, his income, his purpose and, eventually, his voice, turning to drink and casual sex. Unlike Olanna who grows hard and strong in the face of adversity, he shuts up and fades away. He has the courage of his convictions, but not the courage to be convictionless.
Now it's true that the relentless daily hardship in Half of a Yellow Sun is wearing and difficult but, as the novel's ending makes clear, Olanna and Kainene's stories, and the stories of their partners and families, are about hope in adversity rather than only wallowing in horror. It is about the endings of old things and the possibilities of new things and, of course, about the impact, the causes and effects, of colonialism. At the same time, it is only about itself. It seems presumptious, nay even ridiculous, to talk about 'themes' or 'topos' in connection with a novel so close to terrible real-world events. Adichie is writing from a well-spring of personal emotion (both of her grandfathers were killed in the war), and we are encouraged to read in the same frame of mind. Just because Olanna, Kainene, Ugwu and Odenigbo, even Richard, are fictional, doesn't mean they aren't real. Their lives follow the recognisable patterns - they're very close to the surface of our world, I think.
And, as a result, Half of a Yellow Sun seems like a novel in conflict with itself. Does it want to tell a history or a story; does it want to be a novel of character or of morals? Sometimes Adichie isn't certain and, like war itself, her narrative gets messy with stilted dialogue, repeated events and lacuna. But she is always direct, if occasionally rough, and never overwrought. She has a steady hand and a steady eye, for personal and general tragedy. There is much to admire in it; even when it feels didactic, even when it feels cliched, it is always reaching for something essential.
As to its place on the Orange Prize shortlist? It feels well-deserved and, at this early stage, I'm prepared to predict it a win. How not to admire Adichie's confrontation of events so visceral and devastating, with characters so detailed and well-drawn?