Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

18749Blurb:

With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professor’s beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lover’s charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olanna’s willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.

Review;

My most comprehensive history course took place in my first year of high school. It bore the title “Global Studies,” a cursory naming attempt to broaden “world” and liven up “history.” We started between the Tigris and the Euphrates circa 4000 BCE. By 3000 BCE we had arrived in Egypt. It was our first and last visit to Africa during the entire year. We traveled to the agoras of Greece and the forums of Rome, to the East towards China, Japan, and India, back to Europe for the Dark Ages and then the Renaissance, and then outward into the world for the Age of Exploration and subsequent colonization. During this period, in fact, we returned to Africa. But briefly, very briefly; not to visit civilizations but to collect living raw materials—black slaves—to build civilizations across the ocean.

This is both an indictment of my high school history department and a premature attempt at self-excuse for the following failure: before opening Half of a Yellow Sun, the Biafran War did not exist for me. I did not know that in the 1960s, Nigeria suffered a series of military coups which led to the persecution of the Igbo people in the country and their subsequent secession into the state of Biafra. Thanks to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, now I know. A little more at least.

She begins the story in the early 1960s, a period of slight unrest, to be sure, but relatively tranquil. During this time, she introduces the main players who originate from various social classes. There’s the houseboy Ugwu, an uneducated rural villager, and his masters, two middle class professors. Then there’s a wealthy Nigerian businesswoman and her white British partner. Their stories all eventually overlap, but it’s a brilliant mélange to use as a base. Because once the war starts brewing, Adichie is able to show how it cuts across social categories. War, for Adichie, is omnipotent.

The strength of her characters is where she succeeds. Journalists are often maligned for focusing on “human interest stories” in the shadow of a great conflict. But as a lover of literature, I become more and more convinced that the only way to understand great conflicts and to appreciate their causes and consequences is to meet the people behind them. Perhaps it’s a foible, but I struggle to care about something until I can see its face. In Half of a Yellow Sun, I saw a lot of faces. Faces of people who I would never have the occasion to meet otherwise.

Adichie is just a great humanist author. It’s special but ultimately not terribly important that she’s talking about Nigeria, a subject of which very few have a deep familiarity. Her work would shine in any era, in any context. She has a way of shining light on people that reflect this light outward until it becomes compassion and empathy and understanding and appreciation. Under her careful hand, the Biafran War is not a mere photograph of children with twigs for arms and balloons for stomachs; it’s the story of people who told their story, but no one listened, and it’s the story of people who were never able to tell their own.

All in all, it’s a great story, which for me, is real history.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

15796700Blurb:

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet

Review:

Americanah is an engrossing tale about culture, race, love, and transformation. Transformation is inevitable—the harsh world makes you bow before it, but can two Nigerian kids stiffen their spines to it?

At the beginning of Americanah Obinze and Ifemelu are kids in love. They bounce through the world, shielded by their love for each other, not daunted by the unpredictability of their lives, but invincible in front of it: nothing can destroy them when they are together. They are young and naive, and Adichie writes them perfectly, expertly capturing their voices; I believed everything she told me. But in politically unstable Nigeria, not even love can quell the forces that separate the couple, with Ifemelu off to America to study and Obinze eventually off to England to work.

The Atlantic barring them from each other, their indomitable love becomes domitable and both undergo a decade of metamorphosis. The bulk of the book focuses on what happens outside of Nigeria, the stably unstable idyll of their youth. Obinze, formerly a popular teen envied for his effortless success, must discover how to cope when the world fails him. Ifemelu discovers race. In Nigeria her black skin was just black, perhaps darker or lighter than a classmate’s, but black all the same. In America stepping into a certain neighborhood is a statement because of her skin.

Ifemelu changes hairstyles—from braids to chemically relaxed locks to an Afro. Obinze changes names—from high school idol “The Zed” to illegal immigrant “Vinny Boy” to fully fledged “Obinze,” a wealthy Lagos landowner. They change partners—Ifemelu dates a white American and an African-American, mining each relationship for material to use in her blog on race in America as told by a foreigner. They change incessantly, growing up and out of their unformed youth and into selves that may or may not be their true selves. They change until one day they return to Lagos, a city that has changed in their absence too, leaving them behind when they believed it was they who had left Lagos behind.

This epic tale—and it is truly epic if we take the Odyssey as our model: oceans are crossed, decades are breached—asks if anything can remain constant if the world just won’t stop changing. Can an aged and battered love still shine after years in the dark? Adichie answers this question, but the odyssey towards it is not simple. Americanah is about the pursuit of progress, but it is unclear if Obinze and Ifemulu’s expat progress is truly positive. The two change, change, and change so much in order to mold themselves to their new worlds that it takes years before they stop and wonder if there is the possibility of constancy. The answer doesn’t come easily for the two protagonists nor for the reader, but when it arrives, it satisfies.

4 out of 5 stars