"Half of a Yellow Sun": The sweeping story of a nation erased

"Half of a Yellow Sun"
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, 435 pp., $24.95

Biafra is back, in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's second novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun."

It was, fleetingly, a West African nation on the Bight of Biafra. In the wake of genocidal strife that rocked Nigeria, Biafra seceded from the larger country in 1967, declaring itself a republic and a homeland for the Igbo people, who had been massacred and discriminated against in a series of bloody coups and counter-coups. Nigeria moved quickly to retake Biafra, beginning with economic sanctions — including a blockade that led to mass suffering — and progressing to outright war.

For three years Biafra fought to maintain its independence, becoming, in the course of the struggle, synonymous with images of starvation. In 1970, the battered republic fell. Nigeria promptly renamed the Bight of Biafra (now known as the Bight of Bonny), and erased Biafra from the maps of the world. By that time more than a million people, most of them Igbo, had died, many of hunger.

"Half of a Yellow Sun" (the book takes its title from the rising sun on the official flag of Biafra) covers the war and the years leading up to it in a sweeping story that provides both a harrowing history lesson and an engagingly human narrative.

Adichie's central characters are a pair of upper-class twin sisters — Olanna and Kainene — and the people most closely connected to them. Beautiful London-educated Olanna, as the story begins, is in love with Odenigbo, a professor whose home is the gathering place for free-thinking university intellectuals. Odenigbo is idolized by his newly arrived young servant Ugwu, a village boy stunned by his master's comparatively opulent lifestyle. ("Ugwu did not believe that anybody, not even this master he was going to live with, ate meat every day.")

Kainene, Olanna's twin, is a shrewd businesswoman adept at the deal-making that has also made their father rich and powerful. She falls in love with Richard, a mild-mannered white English writer smitten with Igbo culture. As the rebellion begins, Kainene sees motives that escape her more naive associates: "Richard was surprised when he heard the announcement that the federal government had declared a police action to bring the rebels to order. Kainene was not. 'It's the oil,' she said. 'They can't let us go easily with all that oil.' "

Adichie ("Purple Hibiscus") shifts points of view among the central characters, keeping their stories always in the foreground. She also alternates between the pre-war and war years, wrapping the emerging political conflict in a rich and involving drama.

Olanna and Kainene, embarked on very different roads, become increasingly estranged; both are almost embarrassed by their parents, wealthy dilettantes. A central crisis of unfaithfulness drives the sisters still further apart and threatens Olanna's relationship with Odenigbo. Ugwu, perhaps most engaging of all the characters, grows by book's end from a young boy into a scarred and guilt-ridden battle veteran.

Adichie, born seven years after the war, puts a powerfully human face on this sobering story, which is far from over. Second-generation secessionist tensions in the former Biafra continue to simmer.