Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie

I picked up Half of a Yellow Sun because it appeared on a list of best books of the 21st century so far. I've enjoyed the books on that list, worthy nominees all of them, many of them difficult, full of struggle for character and reader, with stories that are important and must be told. It's good I have these breaks from genre fiction, which tends to be lighter. (Not always.)

There is no doubt that this is a powerful book, a difficult book, and one that I am glad I read. It's not a fun read, not reading for relaxation or distraction. This is the type of book that evokes despair and struggle, even as it is more than just despair.

I've been struggling with this review for two days, because quite frankly I'm having trouble grappling with how I feel about it. When it comes down to it, I want to be fully behind it, to laud it to the skies, be enthusiastic, to tell everyone it's a book they need to read.

And you know what? That might be true. It might be the kind of book that everyone should read. It has depth and complexity, striking characters and difficult situations. It's not a fun book, but not every book should be fun. Some should be hard. Some should make you uncomfortable. So maybe you need to read this. Maybe I did. I don't regret doing so.

The problem is that I'm having trouble selling enthusiasm because I'm not feeling it. Parts of it are so ugly that I genuinely struggled, while recognizing that war is just this ugly, and so the treatment of it should be. I struggled with the rape scene being mostly there to spark emotion and difficulty in the young male character. It wasn't that it was badly done, or unrealistic. It's just that I've read so many rape scenes recently, and I've been having real difficulty when rape scenes are included solely to tell us something about the men, (It's never pleasant, but some depictions bother me more than others. Also, I know it's partly because I've been noticing it this year, but damn. I feel like going back through the books that I've read in the last year and counting how many have included a rape, either well done or appallingly so. (The answer is, out of around 130 books, 20 have included a rape that happens during the action of the book.))

(It's not done appallingly badly here, it's just that it's only here to make the young male character uncomfortable with what he's capable of.)

I am still having difficulty knowing what to write. Let's go back to a synopsis and see if that helps.

This books takes place during the time when Biafra declared itself a separate nation from Nigeria, and the war that ensued. The book starts before the secession, but I'll use what side people ended up on for nationalities. There are three viewpoint characters - Ugwu, the houseboy of a Biafran radical academic, Olanna, the lover and later wife of the academic, and a white Englishman who comes to Nigeria and becomes involved with Olanna's twin sister. (The academic and twin sister are important too, but we're not given time inside their heads. We see what they do, not why.)

We see the years leading up to the declaration of independence, what people think of the world they live in and the world they would like to build. That shifts, gradually, into the world as it becomes as they slowly are ground away by the war. Adichie shows up desperation and generosity, hand in hand, as the nation they want to build crumbles.

The role of colonialism and British rule on the way the war arises and is continued is keenly perceptive - Richard continually fights against visiting journalists just looking for stories of African brutalities without context, packaging a story that will make people cluck their teeth but feel no connection or responsibility.

It's a very good book, but it's also a very difficult one. I am still grappling with my feelings about it, and perhaps that itself is a good sign.

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