Half of a Yellow Sun – a Review (part of the 2015 Africa Reading Challenge)

It’s strange when something so awful as the Biafran war happened and you don’t really know anything about it. Especially when you’ve actually lived in Nigeria, as I did when I was a child. We weren’t there long – around 5 months, in 1980 – but it was enough to understand a little bit about that huge, and hugely complicated, country. A little bit, but evidently not enough – as I really didn’t know much about Biafra.

To be fair, I was very young when we were there – 11 or 12. And what child of this age really does know about war? Except all primary aged children do learn about some wars, like World War 1 and World War 2.

So hurrah for fiction, which can open our eyes to parts of history that otherwise would totally pass us by. I have always found it easier to understand the factual side of historical events if I have first read some fiction around it. It’s easier to follow the “dry” stuff if you have some context to set it in, if you get to know some characters who were involved (even fictional characters). So, as I read my way through Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I constantly found myself turning to Wikipedia or other websites to find out more about what happened in that internal conflict, aided by outside forces, back in the 1960’s. I think it’s the sign of a good book when you want to know more about the era and the story that surrounds it.

And Half of a Yellow Sun certainly is a good book. It has it all, interesting characters: a fascinating backdrop, tension between family, romance, disloyalty, the turmoil of war. The book follows three main characters – Olanna, whose wealthy Igbo family enjoys a life open to few others in Nigeria; Richard, the British boyfriend of Olanna’s twin sister; and young houseboy Ugwu – through the lead-up and the duration of the Biafra war, watching as they interact with each other and others around them, all trying to find their places in the new world order.

To me the most fascinating character was Ugwu, who basically seems to slave for the wealthy, intellectual copy he lives with (there is no mention of him ever getting paid or having regular days off). He is portrayed at first as a simple sort, who learns to read from the Professor and then starts to soak up information. As events unfold, he goes where he is told, does what he is told and doesn’t seem to question his place in life. But gradually the lives of those around him, who have previously been more privileged than he, change – they are brought down to his “level” and eventually, through the awful starvation of that period, they are equals. And at the end, we realise that he is the one whose life has probably been affected the most by the events portrayed in the novel – it turns out that the book we assume all along has been written after the end of the war by the British character, Richard, is in fact a work by Ugwu. Out of the chaos of the horrendous events, there is some good – I imagine Ugwu rising above his place in life and finding a job as a professor or teacher, following in the footsteps of his “master”, professor Odenigbu.

As for the other characters, it’s hard to really warm to any of them. The twin sisters central to the storyline (Olanna and Kainene) come from a privileged background and so we learn of what the war is like for those Nigerians who have previously “had it all”. Kainene’s boyfriend is Richard, a Brit who decides he is an honorary Biafran and determinedly stays put through all the horror, even though he is helpless to stop events unfolding around him. One of the more harrowing scenes in the book involves a stop-over at an airport, where a man he was previously chatting to is massacred for being from the wrong tribe. The blind loyalty all these characters show to the “cause” is astonishing – the futility of what happened in Biafra is clear to us now, but we see events through the eyes of the characters, apparently believing they will win the war right up until the bitter end.

The book touches on other subjects, like child soldiers, rape, colonialism. But all of this is just a backdrop really to the main events – the interplay between the characters and the way all of them react to what is happening around them. It’s not an easy subject matter but it is one that is obviously very important to the author, whose own family were caught up in the war. I certainly felt like I learned a lot, but at the same time I felt entertained. I’m looking forward to reading this author again, and already have a copy of Americanah ready on stand-by.

Read my other Africa Reading Challenge reviews – Dolphin Song and Disgrace.

Disgrace – a Review for the African Reading Challenge

I’ve come a bit late to this book. I’d heard of it, after all, it’s both a Booker and Nobel prize winner. But I hadn’t realised quite HOW well-known it is, that it’s got a film and everything. However, the fact that I didn’t know much about it meant I came to open its pages with no preconceived ideas, no reviews (good or bad) ringing in my ears and – luckily – no image of John Malkovich (the lead actor in the film of the book) in my mind. So it meant I was able to read it and decide for myself what Disgrace was about.

I loved this book. It was an interesting story and it was also one of those tales you could interpret in so many different ways. I spent a bit of time reflecting on what it all meant before I did finally read some reviews – and then realised that in fact there were almost as many different interpretations as reviews, and that in the end it is up to us – the reader – to decide what it all means.

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In the book, university professor (David Lurie) resigns from his job in “disgrace” after having an affair with one of his students. It appears that the “disgrace” isn’t so much the affair as the fact that he gives her a pass mark in an exam that she doesn’t actually sit. Of course, this in itself is open to interpretation – although this is what he is pulled up for, could it be that this is the best way to get rid of the dinosaur that he appears to have become?

Lurie moves to live with his daughter Lucy in the country – and settles into an uneasy life with her. But the life is torn apart after a group of men attack Lurie, rape Lucy and shoot the dogs Lucy looks after.

This is the crux of the story, and the part which is perhaps the most open to interpretation. Why does Lucy not condemn her attackers? Does she see it as the price she needs to pay for the crimes of her people? Is this the big divide between her and her father, who represents the older generation? Does she need her father to see that he isn’t so different from the men that attacked her – although he wasn’t violent with his young student lover, he undoubtedly used his power to get what he wanted from her, and at no point does it appear she was willingly complicit in the affair. Is the “disgrace” of the title the attack, or the reaction to the attack? Or is it Lurie’s blindness about what he has done and his refusal to link events?

Lurie moves away from his daughter when their relationship deteriorates following the attack, although eventually makes his way back to the countryside where she lives. He works with one of Lucy’s friends putting down unwanted pets – mostly dogs – and the final scene sees him choose a lame dog that he had previously saved from execution. My own interpretation of this is that this is the author showing Lurie finally accepting that it’s time he changes, that the “lame dog” that he is needs to be put down. An end to the old ways?

There is so much more that could be read into Disgrace, but I am sure the reason it has been so widely praised and won the Booker and Nobel prizes is that it so neatly encompasses so many themes and conflicts (Apartheid, gender, the old versus the new) in such a relatively short and simple story. As someone who is moving to South Africa later this year, it also helped frame some of the big issues I will undoubtedly encounter. I thoroughly recommend this book.

This book is reviewed as part of the Africa Reading Challenge.

You can read my earlier review of Lauren St John’s Dolphin Song here.

The Africa Reading Challenge: A Review of Dolphin Song

A few weeks ago I joined the Africa Reading Challenge and blogged about it here. Since then, I have ordered my first five books – which are:

  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee (set in the country we are moving to, South Africa, it was the first of my new books I delved into)
  • Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
  • Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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I’m happy with my choices so far but realise they are very West/South Africa-centric so will be looking out for literature from the North and East of the continent next.

In the meantime, I recently finished reading Lauren St John’s Dolphin Song to my daughters. As the rules of the challenge say it’s fine to review children’s books, as well as books you’ve read to someone else, I thought I would make this my first review.

Lauren St John is an author of both children and adult fiction, who was born in Zimbabwe but now lives in England. I think the blending of these two cultures was what first attracted my two daughters (who are aged 7 and 9) to her books, as she follows a young British girl moving from her home country to South Africa following the death of her parents in a house fire. She covers this in the first book in the series, The White Giraffe and I was initally worried that this was a big topic to take on for such young children, especially my over-sensitive 7-year-old; but in fact they took it all in their stride and don’t seem to have been overly-worried by the untimely demise of Martine’s parents.

Perhaps this is because StJohn takes the story very quickly into a fantastical place, a safari park near Cape Town, where Martine goes to live and have adventures with – amongst other things – a white giraffe called Jemmy. As well as painting a beautiful picture of a fascinating country – which is perfect for us as we prepare for our move to South Africa – Lauren also weaves in many other important elements of childhood life into her book, including homesickness, starting a new school and bullying.

These are all topics that she continues to cover in her second book, Dolphin Song. In this story, Martine and a group of classmates (including the bullies) are ship-wrecked off the coast of South Africa, rescued by dolphins and end up on an island near Mozambique. As well as the issues visited in her first book – bullying, friendship, different culture,  – the author delves deeper into a topic that is obviously close to her heart – conservation. In this book, the children battle to save a pod of beached dolphins and find out why they were stranded. St John ties these messages neatly into the story-line without making it feel too laboured – I don’t think at any point my children felt they were being preached to as they listened to the exciting tale unfold.

dolphin song croppedBy the end of the book, the children are rescued, have made friends and everyone seems relatively happy. But St John doesn’t sugar-coat and it is made clear that despite their having to come together to survive on the island, Martine does not expect to suddenly be best friends with the former-bullies once they are back at school. One of the dolphins they are trying to rescue also dies, a strong message that nature is a messy and unpredictable thing.

Having finished Dolphin Song, my two children went straight on to read the next books in the Martine quartet – The Last Leopard and The Elephant’s Tale, a sure sign that they have enjoyed these books as much as I did. This partly might be because they are curious about their new home-to-be, but I think there is enough adventure, intrigue and childhood concerns in this book to appeal to all children, wherever they live.

Have you found any relevant fiction books to read to your children before you moved to a new country? Did you find this helped with the transition? Or have you used books like this to help your children cope with things bullying? If anyone has any more children’s fiction set in southern African they would recommend, I would love to hear about it.

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