Not Oprah’s Book Club: Half of a Yellow Sun

I have been intrigued by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ever since I saw her stunning TEDTalk about the “danger of the single story,” in which she warns that stereotypes are born, not from pure ignorance, but from knowing just one thing about a group of people.

Having just read her incredible novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, I have an even deeper understanding of the earned wisdom and complex truth of her warning. Will Blythe, reviewing it in Elle Magazine, described it better than I possibly could:

Anchoring the narrative in the doomed Biafran war of secession in 1960s Nigeria, Adichie entwines love and politics to a degree rarely achieved by novelists, who usually focus on one or the other. Where V. S. Naipaul has written with a poison pen of postcolonial chaos, Adichie describes the whirl with a generosity to her characters that seems handed down from Charles Dickens. Though compassionate, she’s no fool…Novelists interested in history tend to depict their characters as the innocent victims of larger forces, the spindrift of impersonal waves. Adichie shows how history’s victims can also be the perpetrators of its excesses. The prose is admirable, but we’re not meant to admire it. We’re meant to stare through the glass until it disappears, for Adichie possesses a nineteenth-century confidence in the sufficiencies of traditional narrative… As The Iliad came to displace the realities of the Trojan War, whatever they may have been, so shall Half of a Yellow Sun subsume the history upon which it is based. That is what great fiction does—it simultaneously devours and ennobles, and in its freely acknowledged invention comes to be truer than the facts upon which it is built.

The pain of this novel operates on so many levels. On the surface, it is painful because it is about war and betrayal, violence and deception. But on a deeper level, this novel is painful because it reveals how much each of us has the capacity for greatness and evil within, and how these forces intermingle, co-exist, intertwine despite our best intentions to choose to be better. Adichie writes about a time and place, about war and nationalism, but she also writes about the unavoidable human condition of being both the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves all at once. What a profound accomplishment this book is and what a great teacher for us all.

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