What brave, daring, complex storytelling! I would make a very serious case that Adichie is among the best early(ish)-career authors writing today. Her stories keep reeling out, layer after layer, but never lose the unity of the whole.
Adichie is not afraid to take her characters to incredibly dark, unlikable, complicated, socially-influenced yet personally-determined places. The front cover of my book describes the narrative as “pitiless,” and the word is apt; she pitilessly depicts the toll that war takes on even her kindest-hearted characters. It strikes me as incredibly brave to handle Ugwu as she does, risking the reader’s love for perhaps the novel’s most sympathetic character. She does it, I think, to show that the passivity that’s largely characterized Ugwu throughout the book can demonize him under war’s violent pressures. (According to reviews, this plot element was excised from the film; I wonder if the film can make the same point about the internal spoilage of war without it.)
Adichie also executes a striking 180 in terms of theme, starting the book as a meditation on romantic love and ending it as a sort of moving elegy to sisterly love.
If memory is the ultimate goal of history (one of my favorite quotes on this subject is H.G. Wells’, who describes “human history…[as] a race between education and catastrophe”), then Adichie has done an incredibly human thing, as well: preserved the Nigerian Civil War, rarely or never taught in schools, in vivid detail. I’m not sure whether the present-day rhetoric surrounding a war like Biafra’s is Never forget—this article and this interview suggest it’s not, but it’s difficult for me to remove that frame of reference, as I come at the question of historical memory as a student and grandchild of the Holocaust. Regardless, Adichie has enabled future generations, myself included, to feel the horrors of starvation and the disappointment of postcolonial regional hopes in 1960s Biafra.
A master class in:
Scene-setting. As in Americanah, Adichie opens a huge number of new scenes that require new settings: interior/exterior, weather, time of year, time of day, place details, mood details—and she never skimps on any of them. The sheer number of new and specific details required to set a scene has been the biggest struggle for me as I edit my novel, and Half of a Yellow Sun is a model here.
Perspectival risks. But Adichie’s choice of diverse close-third perspectives is what really makes her a writerly model for me. She takes on the voices of characters male and female, rich and poor, white and black, young and old, ethnically Nigerian and British.
Yet I must say that the ending makes me just a bit uncomfortable when it comes to Adichie’s view of inhabiting diverse perspectives. Perhaps it’s inaccurate to read morality into a novel that seeks simply to tell a story. (I like what Karen Russell has to say about this, in Glimmer Train 84: that “the best fiction can communicate a truth that’s independent of its writer’s politics.”) But in the final twist of HoaYS, one moral seems to be that other people’s stories are not ours to write. Perhaps Adichie is nodding to an anxiety of her own—although in interviews, she tends to say that, though born seven years after the war, its memory was alive in her through her family’s stories. Perhaps the end is her avowal that the war is her story to write, that she is its inheritance (as she says in this interview, too.) But it’s challenging to square a book whose author takes on personas outside the frame of her own experience, with one that ends on the British character not only unable to write about the Nigerian war but, upon saying, “The war isn’t my story to tell, really,” is met with Ugwu’s avowal that “he had never thought that it was.”
My brilliant reader-friend Samo and I both noticed the same strange feature of HoaYS: though the prose is precise, vivid, daring, there are unexpectedly few lines that we underlined to reread. Many of my favorite writers are extremely lyrical (Jeanette Winterson, Marilynne Robinson, Tim O’Brien, Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago.) I’d have thought this a prerequisite to being a wonderful writer—yet Adichie seems to prove a different lesson: effective prose can be vivid and sharp and get out of the way.
” ‘You’re burning memory,’ he told her. ‘I am not.’ She would not place her memory on things that strangers could barge in and take away. ‘My memory is inside me.’ “
” ‘There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable,’ Kainene said. There was a pause. Inside Olanna, something calcified leaped to life.”
“[Kainene] pulled a cigarette from the case, but she didn’t light it. She put it down on the bedside table and came over and hugged him, a tremulous tightening of her arms around him. He was so surprised he did not hug her back. …She did not seem to know what to make of the hug either, because she backed away from him quickly and lit the cigarette. He thought about that hug often, and each time he did he had the sensation of a wall crumbling.”
BONUS interview quote: “Maybe Half of a Yellow Sun is a war book, but I wanted the war to be secondary. I wanted to write about the characters and the way they are changed by the war—changed in the little ways, the ways that you eat and the way that you look and the way you love.”