I don't know how many of you are familiar with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A lot of people recognize the name now because if you are a fan of Beyonce, you heard her speech "We should all be feminists" in Beyonce's Flawless song. I eventually went and listened to the whole speech soon after and thought that it was wonderful. Of course we should all be feminists. Sadly you still have way too many people thinking feminism is a dirty word or that it means that you hate men. So I was happily surprised that this book was on my to read list since I knew of this woman, but at the time, had not read any of her books.
So I dithered about this book's rating for a while, and that was mostly because of the narrative structure of the book. I think if it had been a straight read (everything written in a linear event) I would have liked it more. Instead Ms. Adichie shows us Nigeria pre-Biafran war, then we go into the time just before the war broke out, jump back into an earlier time period, and then follow our characters living through the Biafran war.
For those that are not familiar with the Biafran war otherwise known as the Nigerian Civil War that started on July 6, 1967 and ended January 15, 1970. Nigeria waged a thirty-month war against Biafra, targeting air assaults at civilian locations, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of children, women, and the elderly. Nigeria used land and sea blockade to prevent relief food from reaching hungry masses in Biafra and thousands of children died from a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor. In the end, two million people had perished (from Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War) by Alfred Uzokwe.
So using this major event as a backdrop for five characters reminded me somewhat of Gone With the Wind (though I liked this book and despise that book with every fiber of my being). To follow a set of people who were doing okay/very well before civil war started in Nigeria. To see how they struggled to cope with having no food, power, and the threat of bombings over their heads everyday.
The main characters are Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard. Ugwu who is a 13 year old houseboy that works for Odenigbo. Odenigbo is a university professor who is all for Biafran indepdence from Nigeria. Odenigbo's lover Olanna has left her fairly successful family to stay with Odengibo and share a life with him. Richard is a British ex-pat that has come to Nigeria and falls in love with its art and also with Olanna's twin sister Kainene.
The story rotates among these three characters and readers are given insight into small villages, successful families, and also the ex-pat community perspective on Nigeria and the Biafran war. I think I ended up loving the character of Kainene the most. She was fierce, independent, and we get to see that she has her own set of morals about what can and cannot be done and what can and cannot be forgiven. It is hinted out throughout the story that something has happened that has set Kainene and Olanna apart from one another and we get to see the to sister's slow reconciliation during the war.
Ugwu I found to be naive and innocent and then we see him slowly become a young adult over the course of the book. He loves Odenigbo (or sir) and at first is resentful of Olanna coming to stay, until he finds himself drawn to her and she represents a perfect fantasy to him. We eventually see the bloom is off the rose to speak between the two of them through the course of the book when Ugwu begins to see the woman instead of the pretty face that she has.
Richard I also found to be naive since he seems several steps away from what is actually happening. It is mentioned several times in the story that Richard can leave for London and not return and can be evacuated at any time. I know that he stays because he loves Kainene. However, the two of them have such an odd relationship one wonders what draws Kainene to him.
Olanna I found to be foolish throughout most of the book until the very end when she realizes she will do what is necessary to keep her child safe. She finally gets to see Odenigbo as a man (a weak one at times) and realizes that she is the strong one and the one that will not bend no matter what.
I found it so fascinating to see the mix of the modern and tribal in this book and reading how a lot of the tribal elements came into play even though many of the characters scoffed at them was great to see.
I though the writing was gut wrenching at times. Fair warning there are descriptions of dead bodies, rapes, assaults, with people and children slowly starving to death. At one time I went downstairs to my kitchen and just made myself a bowl of soup because my stomach would not stop growling. It's like I had to soothe my body to let it know that food was nearby and everything was okay. I also had to stop reading a few times because some of the descriptions were so matter of fact it made my stomach twist up. You wonder how people can do this to one another, and then you read this book and you can see how easy it was and how the rest of the world just stood back and let it happen since many countries had their own allegiances to Nigeria because they wanted to still be able to get oil (it always comes down to oil). It reminded me a little bit of the Rwandan Civil War with a lot of countries either playing ignorant about what was happening or just doing what they could to provide aid, but staying out of the war entirely.
The flow of the book was off a bit, and it was because as I already mentioned because of the narrative structure. It was hard to stay engaged in the late sixties portion of the book with vague mentionings of things that had happened. When the book switched back to the early sixties and you find out what happened to all of the characters you say to yourself oh okay, that makes sense now. But I didn't like the long drawn out way the story played out.
I thought all of the settings were wonderful. The different places that the author showcases in this book (a small village, a wealthy to do Lagos, refugee camps, etc) you would think that she had been to all of these places during this time period. She apparently did a lot of research and it definitely paid off.
The ending was set up in such a way that you had some hope, but knew that noting had really changed, and maybe things were going to get worse before they got better. A very true to life book in that sense.