The reading group all agreed that this is a very well written book with one member calling the writing “silky”. Descriptions are so well formed that readers can almost taste the food and smell the surroundings, and characters are believable, minor as well as the major ones. The book’s title refers to the half of a yellow sun on the flag of the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from May 1967 to January 1970. The symbolism of the flag is explained in the text.
Through the lives of two economically privileged sisters, Olanna and Kainene, their respective partners, the revolutionary academic Odenigbo and the rather insipid English would-be writer Richard, and, in particular, Odenigbo’s peasant houseboy Ugwu, the author reveals the horrors of war. Readers are given an understanding of why the civil war took place and the role of the colonialists in fermenting tribal unrest, but the core of the story is what happens to people in war. The characters are well rounded and complex: Olanna is kind, caring and forgiving (she brings up her partner’s child as her own, she forgives his transgression) but she betrays her own sister in an unforgivable way. Ugwu, who could be seen as representing outmoded superstitious values of pre-industrial Nigeria, is kind too, but he also commits an appalling act that will disturb readers.
The book is an intelligent read; one comes away knowing something about Nigeria in the 1960s, the failure of the Biafran state and the tremendous cost of the civil war.
Although the narrative is clear, a glossary of all the non-English words used in the text and an historic timeline showing major events would have been a help to readers who had very limited or no knowledge of Nigerian languages and history.