It’s a historical fact that the Biafran war lasted from 1967 until 1970. But like all apparently objective historical facts, this one feels more subjective the more you look at it. For whom, exactly, did the war end? Active hostilities may have ended on 15 January 1970, but politically, Biafran independence remains a fraught question. Meanwhile, one of war’s tragedies is always that it never really ends for those who survive. Ceasefires cannot erase scars, loss or memories.
This lack of closure must have presented a challenge for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as she wrote Half of a Yellow Sun. On the one hand, there’s the natural breaking-off point at the declaration of peace. On the other, there’s the knowledge that to accurately represent the experience of her characters is to acknowledge the fact that they can never really leave their suffering behind.
Those dates provide a further set of issues for readers. The knowledge that there must be some kind of end in sight kept me able to turn the pages during the harrowing descriptions of starvation and military brutality. But the probability that not all the characters would survive induced a certain amount of trepidation. Adichie wasn’t writing a fairy story.
The decisions she made in navigating these difficult waters say a lot about her writing.
In conventional dramatic terms, the character you might think is most likely to die is Ugwu. Almost as soon as war breaks out, he has a sword of Damocles hanging over him. He is the right age to be forced into the military – and also easily daft enough to wander on to the streets where the press gangs are likely to catch him. This latter quality makes you dread his fate.
As well as making him an admirable, tender character, notable for his academic ability as much as his eagerness to fall in love, Adichie makes Ugwu the main focus for comedy in the novel. He is prone to doing absurd things like sleeping with chicken bones in his pockets and delighting in the sound of his master calling him an “ignoramus” – and this also makes him feel like a good potential victim. It’s often the comic relief and the lovable rogue who has to die. Think of Four Weddings and a Funeral. You don’t have to progress much beyond the first wedding to realise that the funeral will be held for Simon Callow’s sweary, wacky-dancing Gareth.
But Half of a Yellow Sun isn’t that predictable. The usual dramatic arc is disrupted when Ugwu, having finally been forced into the army, is involved in a gang rape. He is no longer the adorable innocent we expect to love and lose. Now it even starts to feel like death may be a way for him to escape his burden of guilt. I know I had mixed feelings when the report came back to Ugwu’s employers that he had died. And more again when it was revealed that this report was wrong and Ugwu was in hospital.
Still more complicated is the question of what happens to Kainene – and what to make of that loss. In the end it’s this character, who has always seemed the cleverest, the wittiest and the strongest, who doesn’t make it home. One day, she sets off to try to trade across enemy lines – and that’s the last anyone sees or hears of her. Rationally and emotionally, we know she must be dead. But because we never hear for certain we are left in the same position as her lover Richard: unclear about what has happened to her, dreading that it must have been awful, yet hoping against all probability that it might not be true. This disappearance feels all the crueller because it happens so close to 15 January 1970.
Here, too, Adichie does just enough to wrongfoot her readers. She ends the book barely 20 pages after the radio announces the war’s end. It’s so abrupt that when I first read the book 10 years ago, I wondered if these final chapters felt “rushed”. Now I think we are left at the right point. Adichie allows enough time for her characters to return to their old homes – and for her readers to realise they can never really go home again.