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Half of a Yellow Sun

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Half of a Yellow Sun Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

“A gorgeous, pitiless account of love, violence and betrayal during the Biafran war.”

Time

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Half of a Yellow Sun, a richly imagined story of the disastrous war between Nigeria and Biafra, largely forgotten in the West, which won the 2007 Orange Prize in Britain and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

1. Ugwu is only thirteen when he begins working as a houseboy for Odenigbo, but he is one of the most intelligent and observant characters in the novel. How well does Ugwu manage the transition from village life to the intellectual and privileged world of his employers? How does his presence throughout affect the reader’s experience of the story?

2. About her attraction to Odenigbo, Olanna thinks, “The intensity had not abated after two years, nor had her awe at his self-assured eccentricities and his fierce moralities” [p. 36]. What is attractive about Odenigbo? How does Adichie poke fun at certain aspects of his character? How does the war change him?   

3. Adichie touches very lightly on a connection between the Holocaust and the Biafran situation [p. 62]; why does she not stress this parallel more strongly? Why are the Igbo massacred by the Hausa? What tribal resentments and rivalries are expressed in the Nigerian-Biafran war? In what ways does the novel make clear that these rivalries have been intensified by British interference?

4. Consider the conversation between Olanna and Kainene on pp. 130-131. What are the sources of the distance and distrust between the two sisters, and how is the rift finally overcome? What is the effect of the disappearance of Kainene on the ending of the story?

5. Discuss the ways in which Adichie reveals the differences in social class among her characters. What are the different cultural assumptions—about themselves and others—made by educated Africans like Odenigbo, nouveau riche Africans like Olanna’s parents, uneducated Africans like Odenigbo’s mother, and British expatriates like Richard’s ex-girlfriend Susan?

6. Excerpts from a book called The World Was Silent When We Died appear on pp. 103, 146, 195, 256, 296, 324, 470, and 541. Who is writing this book? What does it tell us? Why is it inserted into the story in parts?  

7. Adichie breaks the chronological sequence of her story so that she can delay the revelation that Baby is not Olanna’s child and that Olanna had a brief liaison with Richard. What are the effects of this delay, and of these revelations, on your reading experience?

8. Susan Grenville-Pitts is a stereotype of the colonial occupier with her assertion that “It’s quite extraordinaryÉ how these people can’t control their hatred of each other. . . . Civilization teaches you control” [p. 194]. Richard, on the other hand, wants to be African, learns to speak Igbo, and says “we” when he speaks of Biafra. What sort of person is Richard? How do you explain his desires?

9. Adichie makes a point of displaying Olanna’s middle-class frame of mind: she is disgusted at the cockroach eggs in her cousins’ house reluctant to let Baby mix with village children because they have lice, and so on. How is her privileged outlook changed by the war?

10. The poet Okeoma, in praise of the new Biafra, wrote, “If the sun refuses to rise, we will make it rise” [p. 219]. Does Adichie seem to represent the Biafran secession as a doomed exercise in political na•vet? or as a desperate bid for survival on the part of a besieged ethnic group? Given the history of Nigeria and Britain’s support during the war, is the defeat of Biafra a foregone conclusion?

11. The sisters’ relationship is damaged further when Olanna seduces Richard [p. 293]. Why does Olanna do this? If she is taking revenge upon Odenigbo for his infidelity, why does she choose Richard? What does Kainene mean when she bitterly calls Olanna “the good one” [p. 318]?

12. How does being witnesses to violent death change people in the story—Olanna, Kainene, Odenigbo, Ugwu? How does Adichie handle descriptions of scenes of violence, death, and famine?

13. What goes through Ugwu’s mind as he participates in the rape of the bar girl [p. 457]? How does he feel about it later, when he learns that his sister was also gang-raped [pp. 497, 526]?

14. The novel is structured in part around two love stories, between Olanna and Odenigbo and between Kainene and Richard.  It is “really a story of love,” Adichie has said (Financial Times, September 9, 2006). How does Adichie handle romantic and sexual love? Why are these love plots so important to a novel about a war?

15. The story begins as Ugwu’s aunty describes to Ugwu his new employer: “Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair” [p. 3]. It ends with Ugwu’s dedication of his book: “For Master, my good man” [p. 541]. Consider how Ugwu’s relation to his master has changed throughout the course of the story.

16. How is it fitting that Ugwu, and not Richard, should be the one who writes the story of the war and his people?

17. In a recent interview Adichie said, “My family tells me that I must be old. This is a book I had to write because it’s my way of looking at this history that defines me and making sense of it.” (She recently turned twenty-nine, and based parts of the story on her family’s experiences during that time and also on a great deal of reading.) “I didn’t want to just write about events,” Adichie said. “I wanted to put a human face on them” (The New York Times, September 23, 2006). Why is it remarkable that a woman so young could write a novel of this scope and depth?

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Average customer rating based on 8 comments:

arequipe510, January 1, 2012 (view all comments by arequipe510)
A moving and complex story, with compelling characters, that portrays the brave experiment that was Biafra and the suffering of the civil war in Nigeria. Adichie's use of language is gorgeous and her insight into each of her 5 main characters and her detail in rendering their lives is quite extraordinary.
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Jason Straight, February 14, 2011 (view all comments by Jason Straight)
This book is a book about real people who never existed. Adichie is careful to show us that the characters in this book are real flesh and blood people, they eat, they drink, they have sex, they argue, they make mistakes, they do the things that real people do. The book takes a microscopic view of individual struggles and suffering withing a struggle too large and complex to admit clear understanding. A man trying to cross a border to bury his mother when 1,000,000s of soldiers and refugees are fighting over and crossing that exact border makes the macro comprehensible by the micro. What makes this book most powerful is that while it is an African book, a Nigerian book, an Igbo book--and in large part a book of one generation coming to terms with the history of a past generation--the events portrayed could have happened anywhere. It is a universal story despite being a specifically Igbo story.
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(2 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
erika770, January 1, 2011 (view all comments by erika770)
Wonderful characters, precise detail, intricate but realistic plot in a novel that informs us about a war most have forgotten. Didn't want it to end, and it has never fully left my head since I read it.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781400095209
Author:
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
Publisher:
Anchor Books
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
History
Subject:
Nigeria
Subject:
Historical fiction
Subject:
Political fiction
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
fiction;nigeria;africa;biafra;war;historical fiction;orange prize;novel;1960s;african;colonialism;civil war;african literature;21st century;literature;politics;contemporary fiction;history;biafran war;love;nigerian;african fiction;sisters;contemporary;fam
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Publication Date:
20070931
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
560
Dimensions:
8 x 5.14 x 0.95 in 0.9 lb

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Half of a Yellow Sun New Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$15.95 In Stock
Product details 560 pages Random House - English 9781400095209 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "When the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria seceded in 1967 to form the independent nation of Biafra, a bloody, crippling three-year civil war followed. That period in African history is captured with haunting intimacy in this artful page-turner from Nigerian novelist Adichie (Purple Hibiscus). Adichie tells her profoundly gripping story primarily through the eyes and lives of Ugwu, a 13-year-old peasant houseboy who survives conscription into the raggedy Biafran army, and twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, who are from a wealthy and well-connected family. Tumultuous politics power the plot, and several sections are harrowing, particularly passages depicting the savage butchering of Olanna and Kainene's relatives. But this dramatic, intelligent epic has its lush and sultry side as well: rebellious Olanna is the mistress of Odenigbo, a university professor brimming with anticolonial zeal; business-minded Kainene takes as her lover fair-haired, blue-eyed Richard, a British expatriate come to Nigeria to write a book about Igbo-Ukwu art — and whose relationship with Kainene nearly ruptures when he spends one drunken night with Olanna. This is a transcendent novel of many descriptive triumphs, most notably its depiction of the impact of war's brutalities on peasants and intellectuals alike. It's a searing history lesson in fictional form, intensely evocative and immensely absorbing. (Sept. 15)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "[H]ere is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers....[Adichie] is fearless..."
"Review" by , "Astonishing...fierce and beautifully written....Half of a Yellow Sun is honest and cutting, and always, always human, always loving....[A]mbitious, impeccably researched....Penetrating...epic and confident. Adichie refuses to look away."
"Review" by , "When I think of how many European and American writers rehash the themes of suburban adultery or unhappy childhood, I look with awe and envy at this young woman from Africa who is recording the history of her country. She is fortunate — and we, her readers, are even luckier."
"Review" by , "Vividly written, thrumming with life, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel. In its compassionate intelligence, as in its capacity for intimate portraiture, this novel is a worthy successor to such twentieth-century classics as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River."
"Review" by , "With searching insight, compassion and an unexpected yet utterly appropriate touch of wit, Adichie has created an extraordinary book, a worthy addition to the world's great tradition of large-visioned, powerfully realistic novels."
"Review" by , "Although there is nothing ostentatiously writerly about the straightforward style of Half of a Yellow Sun, Ms. Adichie can make a large, resonant gesture when need be."
"Review" by , "Adichie, born seven years after the war, puts a powerfully human face on this sobering story, which is far from over."
"Review" by , "This book confirms the notion that if you want to understand a country's past, certainly you should read historical and economic texts. If you want to understand its soul, however, read its fiction."
"Review" by , "Adichie's clear-sighted examination reveals how quickly national loyalties, even when rooted in seemingly just causes, can become entangled with self-absorption, denial and even cruelty."
"Synopsis" by , With effortless grace, celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie illuminates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. We experience this tumultuous decade alongside five unforgettable characters: Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy who works for Odenigbo, a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna, the professors beautiful young mistress who has abandoned her life in Lagos for a dusty town and her lovers charm; and Richard, a shy young Englishman infatuated with Olannas willful twin sister Kainene. Half of a Yellow Sun is a tremendously evocative novel of the promise, hope, and disappointment of the Biafran war.
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