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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a searing account of human frailty set in the Biafran War

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The book has been crowned Winner of Winners from 25 years of the Women's Prize-winning books

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the 2012 Hay Festival
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the 2012 Hay Festival

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has just been crowned the Winner of Winners from 25 years of the Women's Prize-winning books.

The book originally won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (then the Orange Prize) in 2007. Set in Nigeria during the Biafran War, it is about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class, race and female empowerment – and how love can complicate all of these things.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a story about the birth and short life of Biafra. It is not a war I am familiar with and it seems it all started in 1960 when Nigeria gained independence from the British. A few years later the Igbo tribe attempted a coup. The war lasted three years - 1967 to 1970 – and was catastrophic, with Nigerian blockades stopping all supplies from entering the region and hundreds of thousands died in the resulting famine.

The story is told through the lives of three characters who are caught up in these momentous events.

Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor and Olanna is the professor’s beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and her new lover. Richard is an awkward young Englishman besotted with Olanna’s twin sister Kainene – a successful businesswoman. As Nigerian troops advance and the three must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.

None of the three main characters are flawless, they make dreadful mistakes, which under different circumstances may seem unforgivable. But this is not only story about the war, but also love, loyalty, friendship, betrayal and forgiveness.

Although Adichie was not born until 1977, seven years after the conflict ended, the Nigerian author writes with an authentic voice of someone who is fiercely proud of her heritage, but who has also known loss as a result of the war. She brings to life a war that affected her family, but also shows the reader the human conflict that wars like this throw up – how families and loved ones cope with each other’s reactions to circumstances of war.

For me, it is the animosity between the sisters that lies at the heart of this story, because, although they are constantly at odds with each other, ultimately their family tie is strong, as this simple sentence in the book testifies: "Kainene leaned against Olanna and then, as if she had suddenly remembered something, she got up and straightened her dress; Olanna felt the slow sadness of missing a person who was still there."

The story is told in sweeping brushstrokes of colourful narrative that bring to life the rawness of war and the devastating effect it can have on ordinary people trying to live their lives. And the ambiguous ending, leaves you wondering about the fate of these characters.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a compelling and fascinating read about a little-known conflict from a writer who uses her skills to highlight its devastation on ordinary humans.

Click here to find out more about the Women's Prize for Fiction

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