There are some books that as soon as you have turned the page on the final full-stop, you know that you will never forget them. These are the books that will always occupy a corner of your mind, their characters and scenes waiting to pounce on you at a moment’s notice. “Was that character okay in the end? How did this other character feel just then?” You may ask yourself on the train home one night. This is one of those books.
The book follows the various destinies and desires of a group of interconnected people in Nigeria and later Biafra throughout the 60’s and the war which descends upon them all: Ugwu, a houseboy who leaves his village to work for the charismatic intellectual Odenigbo in the university town of Nsukka; Olanna, a privileged young woman who gives it all up in favour of living with Odenigbo and becoming a teacher; and Richard, an Englishman abroad who falls madly and irrevocably in love with both Igbo culture and Kainene – Olanna’s twin sister.
Before picking up this book I knew nothing about the Nigerian-Biafran war. Nothing. Nada. Zip. It simply isn’t a subject which is covered in most curricula. As far as I can see there are three reasons for this:
- The question of time. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school week to cover our own history properly, never mind anyone else’s.
- British schools have a real issue with teaching anything in living memory. If you’re lucky you might go up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and if you’re even luckier you might get to the collapse of the Soviet Union – but only those specific events. For instance, all I know about Ireland and the Troubles I know from my own research and from classes I took from an Irishman in France. I don’t think it often occurs to the Department of Education or exam boards that just because they remember it, it doesn’t mean we do.
- It doesn’t fit the narrative. European and American historians and media have built a very specific post-War narrative – which we have all been complicit in propagating, both in spreading it and in swallowing it without question. As far as most of us are concerned the post-War story is the Cold War, Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Woodstock and the Berlin Wall, – with a sprinkling of Civil Rights and Space Race chucked in for good measure. There’s no room in that narrow, clean, linear narrative for the expansive messiness of Algeria, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Biafra; because God forbid that more than one thing happened at a time.
The only thing worse than mangling history, is ignoring it. Anyway, the result of this madness is that I had no pre-knowledge, no preconceptions going in and you know what? I could have picked far worse places to start.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I love me a non-linear timeline and this book has that a plenty. The time-hopping is used sparingly and for dramatic effect, rather than as a nifty bit of post-modern illusionism – which is refreshing for a piece of “literary” fiction. (The inverted commas will be explained in an article one day…) As a result of the disjointed timeline the contrast between before and after the outbreak of war becomes painfully pronounced, as well as giving you more space to focus on the characters and their personal conflicts, – but without going full Brecht and giving the entire plot away. This is reflective of an entire style which not only puts the story first, but is immensely readable.
Speaking of the characters, I love them. Well, most of them. Of the “main cast,” so to speak, I never really warmed to Odenigbo. Perhaps I have known too many people like him, to truly love him, – student-like idealists who think they can change the world by quoting critics and concepts. All the same, I admire him as a character for being generally progressive and well-intentioned, mainly because of Ugwu, and his faith in the Biafran dream shattering is one of the more quietly heart-breaking things in the book. Olanna and Kainene are beautifully-realised three-dimensional women (you’d be amazed how rare that is). Olanna is a sympathetic point of view character, and whilst her outlook on life is affected by her socioeconomic status that isn’t who she is. It would have been so easy to have her as a rich bitch and keep it at that. Like Odenigbo we never actually have a chapter written from Kainene’s point of view, instead the reader has to rely on the perspective of her sister and her lover to build a picture of her character – Richard’s fascination and Olanna’s regret. As a result she comes across as cynical, intoxicating and sometimes vulnerable. And I love it. She has a character type which we often see in men in fiction, but rarely women – that combination of hardened, enigmatic worldliness and likeability that makes Messrs Darcy and Rochester intriguing romantic heroes. I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see more of her.
Although, as much as I love Kainene my heart belongs to Ugwu and Richard – my two favourite POV characters. Whilst Adichie makes it clear that Ugwu isn’t really on the same level of education as the other main characters, she also makes it clear that he is still an intellectual and emotional being in his own right, capable of surprising even the reader. (He will, wait until the end). You’ll just have to read the book to discover what a likeable and amazing character Ugwu is, but rest assured – he is both. Richard is, I fully recognise, a far more problematic proposition. He is the only truly sympathetic white character in the book, and whilst his love of Biafra and Kainene are sincere, it’s difficult to say how much of his view is tinged with romanticism as an outsider. The other characters view him as a combination of mildly ridiculous and sweet as a direct result, the quintessential Englishman abroad; whereas he sees himself as just being emotionally and intellectually invested in his adopted country. The truth is somewhere in between.
This is where I should write a paragraph about the depiction of the war. About how masterfully Adichie depicts war from the points of view of those who suffered the most, what conclusions she comes to about foreign backing of Nigeria and the apathetic world media; the debate over who has the right to tell this particular story. This is where I should write about the woman and the calabash. But I am not. I am going to hand it over to you, the reader. Buy it, borrow it from a friend or library – just read it, I implore you. You won’t regret it.