Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Knopf, 2006

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Half of a Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never heard of Biafra before picking up this novel, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m in the minority for people my age. And yet, Biafra was, briefly in the late ’60s, a nation that saw human suffering on a scale comparable to the holocaust. Imagine never having heard of the holocaust. Well I’d never heard of Biafra. If that isn’t concrete proof of the extent to which eurocentrism influences what we know about the world, I don’t know what is.

This is a flawless novel. The characters, the plot, the writing style, the pacing, and the structure all work together perfectly to form this masterpiece. One of the great achievements of Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to depict extreme suffering without alienating the reader. Think about the times when you’ve watched a documentary, or read a book, or seen a photo of starving children in Africa where the suffering seems so detached from your own life that it’s impossible to conceive of it as happening to real human beings. Adichie works around this in Half of a Yellow Sun. First, it’s enjoyable to read. It doesn’t feel masochistic in the way it sometimes does to read about human suffering. It’s relatable and understandable. It’s engaging and page-turning. All of the characters are living full and complex lives. There’s a huge depth of characters and places and storylines. And so, when you realize that these same characters—characters who have careers they worked hard for, have families, attend university, write poetry, have music collections, have access to modern day luxuries—are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock and sadness you feel is real and intimate.

And one of the most striking elements of Half of a Yellow Sun is how subtly the characters suffering increases. It seems to happen both slowly and then all-at-once. You’ll think you’re seeing suffering and then realize the true suffering hasn’t even begun and then realize that over and over and over again. You’ll look back at a scene 100-pages back and be shocked with how much the characters situations have changed and with how much suffering you’ve become accustomed to as the reader. And then you’ll look back 100-pages later with the same shock all over again. For awhile you’ll convince yourself that there’s at least a sense of camaraderie that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering is so extreme that there’s room for nothing else.

Half of a Yellow Sun had a real impact on me and reminded me how and why literature can be so powerful. It’s a book I’ll never forget and one I’m sure I’ll be reminded of and return to frequently. I would tell anyone and everyone that it’s an absolute Must Read. If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, no matter how long your reading list is, put Half of a Yellow Sun at the very top.

Links: Chimamanda .com | Goodreads | Buy it on Bookshop .org

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