A sense of melancholy permeated within me while I was comfortably reading on a Sunday morning, marveling at Adichie’s recollection of the struggles of a forgotten time. Set against the backdrop of Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70, I felt a constant emotional pull as the story unfolded. It is an account of thousands of innocent, impoverished, and terror-stricken people caught up between the ethnic disputes; people whose voices are unheard.
It is because of Adichie’s powerful narration that my heart ached as I barreled through the pages, overwhelmed with the vivid depiction of the impacts of war on the people who remains scathed for the lifetime.
As the story switches within different contexts – between the early and late ‘60s, Adichie’s portrayal of characters with a multi-dimensional disposition that invigorates throughout the book makes this literary work a masterpiece.
Adichie begins the novel by familiarizing the readers with the day-to-day lives of her characters in times of harmony. The story revolves around five individuals Odenigbo, Olanna, Kainene, and Ugwu belonging to the ethnic group Igbo and Richard, a British national. Olanna is a London educated daughter of Chief Ozobia, Odenigbo, or “the Master” is a revolutionary mathematics lecturer at the University of Nsukka and Olanna’s husband. Kainene is Olanna’s twin sister and Richard is a journalist and her lover. Ugwu is Odenigbo’s houseboy who excels in school and creates a self-conceived happy world revolving around his Master, Olanna, and Baby.
Throughout the book, Adichie signals the evident ethnic differences between Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa all bundled up together under one roof striving for dominance over one another. From the days in harmony, the narrative leaps forward to the time when the Nigerian government is overthrown and the Igbo led a coup killing political figures from the North of Nigeria which became the pretext of anti-Igbo pogroms.
Olanna’s relatives were brutally murdered on her visit to Kano and she successfully escaped with the help of the Hausa Prince Mohammed. Meanwhile, Richard witnessed innocent Igbo people massacred at the airport. When the Igbo leader, Ojukwu announced that Nigeria will retract, the Republic of Biafra was born.
Adichie’s magic weaved magic through Ugwu, an innocent juvenile, unaware of the uncertainty of life who narrates from the eyes of a true Biafran, coming from a village with little knowledge, no education, and only traditions following him.
Ugwu’s bildungsroman is brilliantly articulated by Adichie – from being a houseboy to becoming a teacher and helping children in refugee camps. Throughout the story, Richard who identified himself with Biafra and intended to write a story on the war realized in the end that it’s not his story to tell. It was Ugwu, the once uneducated, young boy who takes up the pen to record his accounts of the war.
This book acquaints us with conflicts of morality, identity crisis, and resilience of the characters as they get caught up with the hopelessness, famine, ruthless killings of their loved ones, bombings, and refugee crises. The emotions linger on as the reader traverse the land of barbaric soldiers, kwashiorkor-plagued children with pot bellies, weeping, playing with ammunition, fleeing to somewhere, hiding from something, and dying of starvation in the commotion of war.
Surely, it is one of my favourite Adichie. Highly recommend.