Monday, 28 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

So we only had one person at the meeting who actually managed to finish the book- even I didn’t make it to the end of this one- the first time in almost 5 years that I haven’t finished a Book Club title. 
Thanks to Ruth for filling in the plot gaps for the rest of us and Clive for listening to the audiobook and providing us with a handy guide to name pronunciation. Team effort!

So. We began with a discussion of the characters of Half of A Yellow Sun, most notably Richard, Ugwu, Kainene and Olanna. We concluded that as the reader we are offered the story mostly through Ugwu’s eyes, but felt that the author saw Olanna as the novel’s central figure. Olanna’s presentation was almost too good to be true; demure, intelligent, beautiful, kind and graceful- we felt we were supposed to be enthralled and captivated by her in the same way that Odenigbo and Ugwu (and more or less every other man in the book) are. However, we talked about how directionless she was, how she drifted through the narrative. She was incredibly well educated and privileged, convinced she was revolutionary and modern by refusing to marry her lover but ended up in a very feminine, wife/mother role anyway. She was incredibly conventional, but we felt that the author really felt that she wasn’t. Kainene on the other hand was a practical woman with a ruthless business head. Successful, independent- so obviously she had to be kind of ugly. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen a million times before. Kainene emerged as the strongest character throughout the discussion. We talked about Richard, how he served little purpose and tried to adopt a Biafran identity, resolutely determined to be a Native African despite very little acceptance from the community around him. We felt kind of sorry for Richard and his endless writing- he really was quite pointless as a person- supported financially by his great Aunt, then his lover Kainene. And then there’s Ugwu. Creepy from the beginning, with his sexual fantasies about a girl that might be a relative, his weird voyeurism of his sister’s body…his listening at doors and silent fumbles with servant girls. I didn’t even *Get* to the bar-girl scene, but it sounds like his creepiness only intensified into actual war crimes. His treatment of women aside, Ugwu is an awful snob and a troublemaker among the other help, constantly playing the compound’s staff off against one another. Similarly Odenigbo, for all his high minded liberalism takes zero responsibility for his actions, his mother is awful, Olanna and Kainene’s parents are corrupt, classless and shallow, their friends are interchangeable suck-ups and nobody in the whole novel seems even half way decent as a person. We guessed that this was supposed to cay something about the rotten, corrupt core of Nigeria as a country.

One of the things that we thought was very well done was the Olanna’s internal conflict about her background and education. Adichie writes gorgeously about what it is like to be an educated, African woman of colour; about how education is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a “white” thing, and any attempt by a black woman to educate themselves, to benefit from learning, to be academic is seen as a bit of a betrayal of the community, a move away from the village and its inhabitants into white space, an alignment with the oppressors. “Too much book” as Olanna’s aunty phrases it.

We talked about Nigerian history, and how lacking an English education is in any historical events that did not directly impact upon England. We talked about the colonial MO and how often it has been repeated around the world. Bloody Britain.

We agreed that parts of the book are beautiful and the prose is quite lyrical in places. Significantly, the scenes that really stand out are the traumatic, horrifying events witnessed by Olanna and Richard (personally I never made it much past the Biafran independence, but am assured there was more horror to follow). The scene of the Igbo slaughter in the airport and the things that Olanna witnesses in the village of her relatives and on the train home have a savage, arresting intensity to them. These scenes are incredibly well written; shocking  and intimate and horrifying all at once.  For me personally, these are probably the only parts of this book I will remember.
As with All the Light We Cannot See, we decided that the out-of-sequence structure added nothing to the book. Though it was presumably done that way to make Baby’s parentage and the mess between Richard/Kainene /Olanna more of a reveal, it was pretty writ large what was coming, so it wasn’t really worth disrupting the narrative flow for so little twist. Numerous readers said that they struggled to keep track of events, characters, relatives and dates and that it was kind of jarring to be introduced to young Baby, then almost immediately whisk  back in time so she suddenly disappears. It’s hard to keep track of, especially amongst a backdrop of constantly appearing and then disappearing poets, academics, politicians, revolutionaries, party guests  and so on.

I think the general consensus was that whilst this is probably a worthy and very emotionally affecting  socio-historical novel, none of us really got much out of it and found it a completely uphill struggle. Maybe it’s not the right time to read a book about civil war, state-sanctioned violence and relentless suffering. Maybe it’s just too horrific a subject to expect to enjoy a book about. Maybe socio-historical novels just aren’t our collective bag.
Here’s a recent article highlighted by our resident history source Clive on the lasting implications and deadly legacy of Biafran independence. 46 years later, tensions still seem as high as ever. 

Anyway- we break for Christmas now, so I’ll see you guys in the new year for our discussion of His Dark Materials in January (it’s grim in parts, but hopefully will offer a bit of an antidote to all the suffering we’ve read lately). We will resolve to choose some more uplifting books in January to take us through to Easter, so come armed with a list of things you missed out on when they came out, things that have sat on your shelf for years, new paperback releases or something that you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to.

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