In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. When the shocking horror of the war engulfs them, their loyalties are severely tested as they are pulled apart and thrown together in ways that none of them imagined…
The novel begins in the early 1960s, setting up the characters before m0ving ahead to 1967 and the beginning of the Nigeria-Biafra war. I came to the book knowing practically nothing about this civil war. Adichie portrays the horror of war in simple ways, allowing the reader to be caught up in events as they unfold. The title refers to the Biafran flag, a tricolour featuring a rising sun. The novel’s protagonists are Igbo and we follow their journey from a united Nigeria, to being forced to flee as they join the new state of Biafra.
Adichie’s characters are cleverly chosen and worked well in illustrating different sections of Nigerian society and how they were affected by war. The book begins with Ugwu as he goes to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a university lecturer who lives within an intellectual bubble. He presses Ugwu into educating himself, hosts evening salons for his university colleagues, and brings his lover Olanna to live with them in Nsukka, a town in south-eastern Nigeria. Olanna comes from a wealthy family. She and her twin sister, Kainene are well educated, not long returned from living in England. Kainene’s lover, Richard, is a white English journalist who falls in love with his adopted country as he falls in love with Kainene.
The great strength of this novel is how the characters draw you in. Often with books that have multiple protagonists, there is a distance between them and the reader, there isn’t enough quality time spent with each to build that bond that stimulates empathy. Somehow I felt equally close to Ugwu and his war experience, the horror of what he does and what is done to him, as I did to Olanna who should have been as easier character for me to identify with. Even when Adichie’s characters act immorally there is a shared complicity with the reader. You can understand why they have behaved in those ways, even when they have committed a crime. The saying goes that desperate times call for desperate measures, and certainly in this book that rings true.
For me the great test of a classic is whether I would read it again, and whether, on finishing the book, I miss it immediately. On both counts I would rate this novel in that category.