Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
“Oh, yes, whatever did happen to Biafra?” I wondered as I got deeper into this novel of the tumultuous 1960s in Nigeria. Through the life of an extended African Igbu family, this large-lens novel tells the story of Nigeria’s bloody, self-destructive civil war of tribal violence and brutalized history from British colonialism. There’s romance, snippy family back-biting, long ignored unhappy family feuds, description of daily life, neighbors and friends.
Adichie uses the estranged relationships of twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, to show the range of educated Nigerian life, sisterly love and betrayals, and the effects of war. In comfortable prose Adichie explains personality, grudges, idiosyncrasies, habits and desires that have time to flourish and trap people living in peace with routine and security. I wondered how she was going to keep the interesting and engaging story going that did not seem deep enough for the hundreds of more pages I still had in my right hand. It turned out all that was a prelude to the horror of the Biafran War that lasted from 1967-1970.
The larger story of history crept in with reports of violence and references to politics until it solidified in a plastic keepsake dangling from a car’s rearview mirror of half of a yellow sun on a black background. What was to be the symbol on the Biafran flag changed the book. From there the story was told through war and any tie the reader had to the book’s characters needed to be re-evaluated under the stress and ugliness of war.
People change from changed circumstances of life and Adichie takes Olanna and Kainene and their extended family and friends through the hell that was Biafra during its three year existence. Now the characters, a collected crew of village servants, college intellectuals, diplomats, military, and the token British ex-patriot, deeply face what they previously enjoyed discussing in bantering party conversation with drinks in their hands. Self-worth, discovering personal truths, forgiveness, rationalizing of all degrees and subjects made an appearance through war’s lens.
The writing was straightforward, never got in the way of the story, and occasionally had a description that stood out. A favorite was when the ex-pat wanted to “twist the sky,” to bring victory to Biafra. That’s an interesting way to implore heavenly realms. I give Adichie credit that she neither entirely blamed nor excused any side of the conflict. Nigerian tribal warfare, Britain, the U.S., and anyone else in the way, played a part, always an important part, but never the only part.