Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007, Harper Perennial 433 pages. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007.

This book is based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 – 70 and I’m old enough to remember hearing about it at the time. Then I had little idea what it was all about – now I understand a bit more. Nigeria became a Republic in October 1960 and Half of a Yellow Sun begins in the early 1960s in Nsukka in the south eastern area where Ugwu becomes Odenigbo’s houseboy. The story centres on these two characters and Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner, her twin sister Kainene and her partner Richard. Odenigbo is a professor at the University and his house is the meeting place for academics who debate the political situation as it leads up to violence and the secession of Biafra as an independent state. The title of the book comes from the symbol on the Biafran flag, which was half of a yellow sun.

The novel moves forwards and backwards in time between the late and early1960s as the civil war proceeds. Focussing on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people, it brings home the horrors brought about by war, the ethnic, religious and racial divisions and the suffering that results. Ugwu at the start of the book is an ignorant young teenager from a poor village eager to learn but still steeped in the superstitions of his family – the old ways. By the end of the novel he has become a valued member of the family and is writing a history of his country. Richard, the white man in love with Kainene but not fully accepted into her world, is eager to be considered Biafran, but is still on the outside. He is in Nigeria studying African art – the Igbo-Ukwu roped pot – and is recruited into writing articles about the war for the outside world, but the story of the war is Ugwu’s to tell and not Richard’s. Olanna’s family is wealthy and even though they are Igbo, they cannot understand her relationship with Odenigbo who is committed to the Igbo cause and would prefer her to marry Madu, a major in the Biafran army. Once the war starts they are all drawn into the conflict, the situation spirals out of their control and they each react in differing ways.

The book explores the conflicts between nationalities, different cultures, different backgrounds and upbringing, between what is traditional and tribal and what is new. Although the violence and deprivations of the war are horrifying and form the dominant element in the story this is not just a war novel. It is also a novel about love and relationships, between parents and children as well as between men and women; about how people learn to adapt and cope with life.

I found the characters to be real, so much so that I could imagine I was there in the thick of things. I sympathised with Richard in his efforts to be accepted and suffered with Olanna when she was confronted with the horror of war and grieved over the plight of the refugees. It reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which I read about 10 years or so ago and Adichie writes of his novels in an article at the end of her book:

Achebe’s war fiction then, humane and pragmatic as it is, becomes a paean to the possibilities that Biafra held. The stories have an emotional power that accumulates in an unobtrusive way and stuns the reader at the end; there are sentences in them that will always move me to tears.

She writes of her own work:

If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it.

How well she has succeeded. Half of a Yellow Sun is an emotional book without being sentimental, factual without being boring, and I was completely absorbed in it to the end.

Daniel Isn’™t Talking by Marti Leimbach

We discussed Daniel Isn’™t Talking last Wednesday evening at the book group. One of the others summed up my feelings when she said, ‘œI was rather under whelmed by it’. I had very mixed feelings whilst reading. I was intrigued to know more about autism, and the book certainly made me a lot more knowledgeable, but I thought that some of the characters were two-dimensional and unconvincing.

Daniel is autistic, but at first Stephen his British father refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with him, whilst his American mother, Melanie, struggles to find out what is wrong with him and the best way of looking after him and helping him to talk, play and become as ‘œnormal’ as possible.

I found it quite a disturbing read not just because of the difficulties and cruelties that autism carries with it, but also because of the way such illnesses are dealt with in our society. There is seemingly a stigma, autism is something that is not generally understood, and the causes are unknown, although there are various ideas circulating (eg the MMR vaccination). The book deals with loyalties, families and ways of coping with illness, health and ways of healing and there are many angry assaults on the education system and its ways of dealing with children who are different in one way or another. Daniel has an older sister, Emily, who is a happy, healthy, cheerful child with ‘œa mop of blonde curls billowing around her face, smiling eyes, aquamarine.’ Stephen insists she goes to a pre-school, whilst Melanie wants to keep her at home. Emily is not interested in school and wants to play, looking at children in the playground as though they are in prison. Stephen has his way and Emily goes to the pre-school and finds that what she likes best is going home.

It’™s a book full of angst. One poignant scene that remains with me after reading the book is the scene in the supermarket where Daniel is having a tantrum, screaming, trying to hurl himself out of the trolley, grabbing biscuits when Melanie meets a woman who understands, is sympathetic and helpful. The other customers are watching, imagining, so Melanie thinks, that she is merely indulging a spoilt child. Next time I’™m out shopping surrounded by screaming children I’™ll remember this scene!

Melanie is paranoid in her antagonism towards special schools. The people who visited Melanie trying to enlist him at a school are described as ‘œa horrible pair who came by with their clipboards and their raincoats, looking more like spies than anybody who should be near children. They regarded Daniel as one might a wild animal, admiring him from a safe distance as we did the tiger who paced his enclosure.’ Well, this is a novel, but my experience is far from that (my daughter-in-law is a special needs teacher).

This book is a quick, easy read, although the subject is far from easy, and is good at portraying a mother desperately trying to help her autistic child. However, some of the other characters (Stephen, his parents, Veena, the cleaner and Larry, Melanie’™s brother) come over as wooden stereotypes and I found the sub-plot of, the alternative play therapist, Andy as Melanie’™s lover unconvincing. The blurb on the back cover says it’™s ‘œPowerful and moving, and also surprisingly funny. A love story in every sense.’ Yes, it is powerful and moving, and also sad, but I didn’™t find any humour and the love story that came over to me is that of a mother for her child.

Winter In Madrid by C. J. Sansom

The devastation, desolation and waste of war had me in tears as I was reading Winter In Madrid. I already knew from reading his 16th century crime thrillers that C. J. Sansom is a master storyteller and this book exceeded my expectations. It is an action packed thrilling war/spy story and also a moving love story and historical drama all rolled into this tense and gripping novel.

Sansom vividly conveys the horror and fear of the realities of life in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the first two years of the Second World War. The opening chapter dramatically sets the tone for the book with the brutality of the Battle of Jarama in 1937 then leaps straight into the bombing of London in 1940. Then Harry Brett, traumatised by his injuries at Dunkirk is sent to Spain to spy for the British Secret Service. He is plunged into the terrible living conditions in Madrid where people are starving, children are left homeless to fend for themselves and wild dogs roam the rubble of bombed houses.

 

He turned into a square. Two sides had been shelled into rubble, all the houses down, a chaos of broken walls rising from a sea of shattered bricks and sodden rags of bedding. Weeds had grown up between the stones, tall scabrous dark-green things. Square holes in the ground half filled with green scummy water marked where cellars had stood. The square was deserted and the houses that had been left standing looking derelict, their windows all broken.

Harry had never seen such destruction on such a scale; the bombsites in London were small by comparison. He stepped closer, looking over the devastation. The square must have been intensively shelled. Everyday there was news of more raids on London – did England look like this now?

This is a long and detailed book, but it moves along rapidly, with believable characters, including the bullying Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, Alan Hillgarth, the chief of intelligence (both of whom are real historical figures), diplomats, Spanish Monarchists and Falangists and the ordinary Spanish people. Franco’s Madrid is shown as a place where fear, poverty and corruption stalk the streets; where hatred and suffering are paramount. It’s a chilling picture, but Harry finds love too when he meets Sofia and plans her escape with him to England after he has completed his mission.

The question is will Franco maintain Spain’s neutrality and enter the war in support of Hitler? Harry’s cover is as an interpreter, whilst his mission is to make contact with Sandy Forsyth, who he had known at public school in England, gain his confidence and discover the truth behind the rumour that gold deposits have been discovered in Spain, which would boost the economy making Spain less reliant on British support. Harry, a reluctant spy, soon finds himself in danger. He is plagued by memories of another school friend Bernie Piper, an ardent Communist who had enlisted in the International Brigades and had disappeared, reported killed at the Battle of Jarama. Barbara, an ex- Red Cross nurse, now Sandy’s girlfriend and Bernie’s former lover is convinced Bernie was not killed She appeals to Harry for help in finding Bernie, and so the story moves to its climax.

With its haunting themes of corruption, murder, the power of authority and heroism Winter In Madrid captivated my imagination. I expect it will be made into a film but I don’t think I could bear to watch it after enjoying this book so much.

Note: This book qualifies for the following Challenges – From the Stacks (I’ve had it unread for months), the Chunkster Challenge (it’s 530 pages) and What’s In a Name?