Friday, March 9, 2007

Sarah's (Loose Baggy Monster) review of "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

NOTE: this is an excerpt from the review posted on my blog. The fuller review contains some "spoilers" so I thought I would only give a briefer version here. I'm sorry if the review feels choppy (plus it's my first book review of a work of fiction, so bear with me)....

In his review of Half of a Yellow Sun for The Morning News's Tournament of Books, Brady Udall makes the observation, that "[f]or a war novel there is a distressing surplus of discourse, with characters holding forth in long paragraphs on subjects like Marxism, European colonialism, and tribal politics." I have to say, that this sentence caught my attention, for in my opinion, it does a bit of disservice to Adichie's work to categorize it in such a simplistic manner. Yes, Half of a Yellow Sun is about war and the ways in which the ravages of violence can quickly pervade a family, community, country, etc., but in many respects, I feel that it is also a novel about ideas, the transmission of those ideas, and the ways in which those ideas play out in a practical sense in the "real" world. Thus, it is vitally important that the first part of the novel focuses on the daily lives of these academic revolutionaries, who do sit around the radio engaging in a "surplus of discourse" involving the politics and various -isms that Udall mentions above. It sets the stage for the way in which the realities of war (the hunger, the pervasive death and terror) often seem to betray the ideals of revolution (or in this case the secession of Biafra from Nigeria, 1967-1970).

The pacing of Adichie's novel really reflected (for me) the descent into chaos once war began. For the first half of the novel, Adichie sets the scene, introducing us to the major characters, giving us glimpses into their everyday lives. We meet Odenigbo, the revolutionary academic, and Ugwu, his houseboy. Olanna, a fellow academic, is also Odenigbo's lover. And we meet Richard, an Englishman, who is also the lover of Kainene, Olanna's twin sister. Adichie seems to enjoy "pairing" in this novel: we have Olanna/Kainene, Odenigbo/Ugwu, Odenigbo/Richard, and a pairing that really struck me, that of Richard/Ugwu. Richard is a writer, entranced with a vision of Africa as he perceives it through the "roped pot" as an artistic artifact. Richard is also impotent on occasion, both in a sexual sense as well as an authorial sense. He writes page upon page, but his story has no cohesiveness (we are told), he can't seem to make sense of his experience, and ultimately, he ends up with little more than a title, which Ugwu later appropriates for his own work (and to a far more effective end).

I feel that Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredibly rich novel, although its full impact didn't strike me until I had finished the book and mulled it over. I did find myself lagging in some parts (particularly early on), but in the end, I can't wait to read this over again, to mine the riches I know are there. However, given that I have 19 other books in this challenge, perhaps a good rereading should be postponed for another occasion....

I do recommend this book, and as a shout-out to Apparent Dip (my husband) and the classic tv show "The Reading Rainbow" I feel compelled to say: "But don't take my word for it...."

4 comments:

Wendy said...

Sarah...wonderful review! I agree with you (as you know from *my* review!)... this book just swept me away. And I think you are right, the early part of the novel is important for us to see the lives of these characters before war rips their lives apart. I think the mundanity (is that a word??!?) of their lives sets the perfect stage for the utter chaos that ensues. Adichie has become my new favorite author (have you read Purple Hibiscus?). I hear she is currently writing her third novel...and I wait with bated breath!

Loose Baggy Monster said...

I definitely want to check out "Purple Hibiscus" after this. As the first book I read for this challenge I thought "Half of a Yellow Sun" was great (for me) because it was a work of contemporary fiction that I wanted to read, but rarely end up picking up (being a more non-fiction kind of person--due to my job). So this has provided a whole new entry into the world of fiction for me that I really appreciate.

kookiejar said...

Excellent review, Sarah. Makes me want to pick it up again and start where I left off. I swear, I will finish this one. (so many books, so little time---the frequent lament of the busy reader.)

Nyssaneala said...

Great review! I really don't think this book can be classified as simply a "war novel"....it is so much more. It is equally about class, race, ethnicity, and post-colonialism. I pretty much agree with everything that you said.

I have Purple Hibiscus checked out from the library, I hope to have time to read it before it is due back!