This was the latest book read and discussed by our book club. It was unanimously appreciated. For my part, I loved finding out more about one war I knew nothing about, not even its occurrence. I do remember the terrible pictures of children in Biafra dying of famine as one of the few momentous events which filtered down to my consciousness as a child (others were two men shaking hands with a third man grinning between them and that being a big deal – Begin and Sadat, in case you were trying to work it out – and a bit later, asking my parents what difference it would make if Monsieur Mitterrand rather than Monsieur Giscard d’Estaing were elected President). However, I discovered to my shame that I had no idea that the Nigerian-Biafran war preceded/caused the famine.
I thought that the novelisation of that war-torn period worked extremely well, with a wide range of different actors of the war (willing or otherwise) convincingly depicted. The twin sisters are obviously strong characters, in keeping with their book heroine status, as well as their respective menfolk, although “strong” is perhaps not the mot juste to describe idealistic Richard, with his tendency to impotency except in infidelity, and his inability to write the book he initially set out to write. Village people are very present too, both those who live with educated and/or rich townies, mostly as servants, and those who are still in their village and in abject, rather than relative, poverty.
The story runs through the tragedy of war and does it with enough gruesome detail to satisfy the urge for anger at the horror and the folly (that severed head being carried in a basket by the mother who can’t stop looking at her daughter’s beautiful braids..) but also with beautiful storytelling around the lives and loves of the protagonists, which stops the book being just a documentary with a little human interest.
What I loved most of all was the depiction of middle-class Nigerians with Western-style education, trying to build something new and fairer in the postcolonial period of the 60s. I appreciated the description of the wigs of the fashionable Nigerian woman of the time. I wanted to know more about the palm wine carrying ceremony, in fact I wanted to be invited to one. I felt bizarrely grateful, somehow, that in the midst of war, a mother still worried about her child catching lice. And the book did leave me wondering whether an Oxbridge education wasn’t another insult to add to the long list of evils perpetrated by the colonial powers in the “Scramble for Africa” (which I haven’t read, but don’t think I have the stomach for, having scanned a few paragraphs).
Here is Adichie’s TED talk: