Postal Reading group
December 2020
Notes on the book Half of a yellow sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is the second time that I have come across Half of a yellow sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I also seem to have a problem with especially highly acclaimed prizewinning novels, for this is not the only highly regarded book which I have failed to get on with, even on a second attempt. Another notable example was Midnight’s children by Salman Rushdie which I believe was considered one of the best of the Booker prize winners ever, no less!

Of course, there is no comparison between these two books, both deal with different regions at different times; my inability to finish either hardly counts as a common factor, and is arguably my own failing. To return to the present book, Half of a yellow sun considers Nigeria at the time of the Biafran War. Arguably, therefore this is a very political novel, which hints at one of my difficulties with it. Surely we’ve had enough of politics in real life, and want to avoid it in recreational reading, unless it is told as a sufficiently compelling story. While, therefore, this might have been a splendid opportunity to learn more about another country, and that period of history, I only felt excluded by my lack of background knowledge. Equally, as I was unconvinced by, and couldn’t really relate to, the main characters, that also made it difficult for me to engage with the book.

This might be an important period of history (especially from Nigeria’s viewpoint), an important story, and told by a Nigerian author. However, none of these features are sufficient to make the book an enjoyable read in its own right. Perhaps the prizes are awarded to such ‘important’ books and consider the reader’s enjoyment to be a secondary concern; especially where that reader knows little of the history in question.

Regrettably, I found Adichie’s writing to be difficult to engage with, and at 433 pages of dense print this is a long book if you don’t enjoy the story or the writing. The frequent changes both of narrator, and time period don’t help readability. Similarly the liberal use of words and short phrases, presumably in Igbo, also make for a difficult read. Presumably it is not essential to understand these in order to follow the story, but I do wonder what I am missing. The writing also makes references to things which must be commonplace in Africa, but rather less so in Europe: the sight of cockroach eggs, or the stomach-ache occasioned by killing a gecko, for example.

I also found many of the characters in the book to be unconvincing. Starting with Odenigbo, I am extremely surprised by a mathematics professor who never seems to talk about maths! Frequent reference is made to his collection of books (which I understand were destroyed in the war and subsequently replaced), although very few details are given away. Similarly, although mathematicians are sometimes known for some unusual interests, or radical ideas, an active interest in politics isn’t usually one of them. Perhaps we can get some idea of Odenigbo’s research interests from his praise for the African-American mathematician, David Blackwell, who was known for his work on probability theory and statistics.

Beyond this, Olanna just seems to be too perfect to be entirely convincing, especially when she still seems to benefit from her parents’ various gifts. To be fair, she does try to refuse, and perhaps she is only being polite, but it does appear very ‘convenient’ at times. In many respects, her sister, the rather less laudable Kainene, appears to be the more realistic character. Then there’s Richard, the Igbo speaking English radical, who’s main claim to fame appears to be his interest in the region’s art.

As an aside, this same author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also wrote Purple hibiscus, another highly acclaimed novel. Although a slightly different book (it was more of a ‘coming of age’ type story), it nevertheless shares much with the present book, in particular the treatment of Nigerian political history; the style of writing is also similar. Although I was at least able to finish Purple hibiscus, it was another case where I felt that I’d missed whatever made it so popular. Perhaps, therefore, its Adichie’s writing that I don’t get on with.

In summary, this would potentially have been a good introduction to Nigerian history, but sadly I found the characters to be unconvincing, and my lack of background knowledge meant that I failed to engage with the book. Although her writing contains some good detailed descriptions, the point is laboured when it comes to the more graphic details of the war. Equally, there are some amusing passages, but these are too few to really hold my interest for long. Given that my opinion of this book is very much an exception from the rave reviews that seem to dominate, I can only assume that there’s something that I’m missing. In that regard I only feel able to recommend this for those with more knowledge of, and interest in, Nigerian politics.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler