Sunday, September 21, 2008

...Half of a Yellow Sun (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

This may be the best book I have ever read by any living writer. And Adichie is only 30 – that’s right; born in 1977. That’s right, better than Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie. And forget your Zadie Smiths and Jhumpa Lahiris. This novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, makes me regret every second I’ve wasted reading Smith and Lahiri because if Adichie were writing about paint drying in the most boring office in the most boring city in Canada it would be more interesting than anything this side of The Kite Runner. The Kite Runner is actually not a bad comparison in terms of politico-historical objectives, but Adichie is a bold literary stylist and practitioner, whose chops are up to the task of her ambition. The writer that comes most to mind in comparison is Dostoevsky; the book that comes most to mind is John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. These comparisons come to mind because Adichie sets the bar high, as it were – high enough that one might say “heck no, you can’t pull that off, you’re only 30 – and even if you pulled off 1/4 of what you’re trying to achieve, you’d have created something great.” And then she clears the bar, and sticks the landing, and wins the gold medal. She deserves a Nobel Prize. Half of a Yellow Sun is not a ‘nearly perfect’ book, it is a perfect book. It sweeps the reader up in a gripping plot cleverly choreographed but never seeming anything other than organic and real, full of love and mystery and potentially unreliable protagonists – but underneath these surface-level intrigues is an urgent political objective and history lesson, but of course never pedantic or didactic. The reader is literally enthralled in the story not only of our protagonists Ugwu, Olanna, Odenigbo, Kainene, and Richard, but of the Biafran war – a war that took place in the 60s, not long after Nigeria’s independence from Britain, during which Adichie was not alive. She aims to reveal the cruelty and suffering and post-colonial aftershocked corruption and geo-political collusion that basically let the Igbo people of the breakaway nation of Biafra starve and be massacred for three years, in a way that implicates the reader for never having known much about Biafra as well as the actual perpetrators behind the Biafra situation. Reading this book feels like a punch in the stomach, but you can’t look away, and you come away all the better for it.

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