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Pickle Me This

December 15, 2006

Half of a Yellow Sun

I can’t imagine what a writer must be fighting with when she sits down to write about a war. How do you fashion a narrative that is not simply an excuse for the backdrop? How can you have characters in all their multiplicity? How do you write about brutality and deprivation, and love, and beauty, all within the same book? In Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has crafted an extraordinary tale, and craft is truly the word. This novel tells the story of Biafra, an independent state formed within Nigeria in 1967, and the civil war that followed before the Republic’s fall in 1970. I’d never heard of Biafra before, and the reason I will never forget it is Ugwu, Olanna and Richard, for this book is their story as much as it is Biafra’s. And this is Adichie’s feat, for it is their stories which awoke Biafra to my ignorant mind. The brutality within this book would have been unrelenting, were it not for broken chronology and alternating narrators with every chapter. The result is a structure which accomodates the vastness of this project, but also facilitates the reader’s engagement with the narrative and each character. What I found most incredible was Adichie’s capacity to generate sympathy for characters who did terrible things, which is essential, in that broken couples had to go on together, and that Biafrans and Nigerians had to learn to live together again once the war was over.

I come away from this book with a similar impression to that I had after reading Sweetness in the Belly— that I had gained an education as much as a story. I remain startlingly ignorant about Africa, and I don’t claim that a novel is any sort of tool toward substantial identification, but I still think that fiction is the best place to go for knowledge. It’s not about empathy, but it’s about learning. That this happened in the world, but I never knew. And thanks to Adichie, I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

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