More than once in Half of a Yellow Sun, the latest novel by the young Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a mother learns that her son has died. The causes are in plain sight and the deaths could not be a surprise. The novel is set during the brutal and lopsided civil war which rent Nigeria in the late 1960s, soon after independence from Britain, and it takes place in Biafra, the seceding state, which, we know from the start, does not appear on any map today. The Biafran soldiers fight in tattered clothes and practice with wooden guns carved on the home front. Nigerian fighters control the sky and relief planes can only land at night, without lights, on a darkened runway which is covered over with brush just before landing, and covered over again just after. Biafra’s position is precarious from the start, and while there are heady moments just after independence is declared, the nascent state descends into famine almost overnight.
The novel begins, though, in brighter times, the early 1960s, in the afterglow of colonial independence, in the home of Odenigbo, a university intellectual with a taste for long dinner parties and revolutionary talk. Odenigbo has just taken in a houseboy named Ugwu, who comes from a rural village and is entranced upon arrival by the refrigerator, upholstered sofas, and the promise of eating meat everyday. Ugwu insists on calling his new master “sah,” but Odenigbo has an egalitarian streak, defined against the inequity of British rule, and asks that Ugwu call him by his name.
Ugwu takes quickly to his new life, cooking pepper pot soup and scrubbing the marble floors, while also attending school and lingering around the political conversation which fires the house each night. He has just settled into a routine when Olanna moves into the house. She is Odenigbo’s lover and girlfriend, the daughter of a wealthy family from Lagos who has repudiated the oligarchic practices of her father. Ugwu is made jealous by the exclusive way Odenigbo looks into Olanna’s eyes and he is stirred by her beauty. At night he pads up to their bedroom door and listens to them make love.
The novel alternates in time between the early 1960s and the domestic drama set around a pair of romances – Odenigbo’s with Olanna, and Olanna’s twin sister Kainene’s with a British expatriate named Richard – and the late 1960s when the Biafran war has shattered everything about the characters’ former lives. The two parts don’t harmonize, so much as accent each other. The descriptions of plenty in the early part of the decade, imported brandy and the latest lace from Europe, make the desolation of the war all the more stark and visceral. Soon after Biafra’s declaration of independence, Ugwu, Olanna and Odenigbo flee the advancing Nigerian army and find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation, as internal refugees in a starving land.
Although Adichie devotes almost equal time to life before the war and life during it, it is the war narrative that drives the book and gives it a residual strength that I still feel more than week after finishing it. Her description of civilian suffering is so direct and real, that it’s hard to believe she never experienced it herself (Adichie is only 31, and learned about the civil war from her parents who survived it on the Biafran side). As the totality of the war grows on the page, the characters recede somewhat against the tableau of suffering. It’s not so much that they’re neglected, as they are overwhelmed by the events around them. Odenigbo, gregarious and charismatic before the war, draws in on himself as the depredations mount.
Yet the net result of so much loss is not a catatonic state of unfeeling, as it often is in barren, dystopic stories like the recent movie Children of Men. Adichie does not offer the consolation of a flower sprouting amidst the rubble, but she does provide that even when we’d rather not, we cannot help but go on sensing, feeling, hurting. Late in the book, a neighbor of Olanna’s learns that her son has been killed in the army. It is just one of many such losses and when Biafran soldiers go off to fight, there is little reason to believe that they’ll come back. But when the mother hears the news, she throws herself to the ground and tosses around in a fit of anguish, cutting herself on the stones. It is a terrible moment, though also one filled with a strange kind of hope. At a time when war threatens to level everything into the ground, her suffering is vibrant.