“We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.”
This book, set in Nigeria, has been on my TBR pile for years and I’m so glad my book club assignment finally moved it to the top of the list. What a beautifully written and moving story! I loved it as much as Adichie’s other novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.
The author, while portraying the curious mix of love and fear in an abusive family situation, very articulately draws a portrait of a country filled with incredible beauty but also fraught with heartbreaking struggle. The book is so readable and the characters are very vivid. An African novel not to miss!
Kambili is living a life of wealthy privilege but also of abuse. Along with her mother and brother, the family endure physical and emotional trauma from her fanatically religious and extremely controlling father. It is an all too typical tragedy where the patriarch is revered in the community, and makes positive contributions to strangers, but abandons the needs of those closest to him.
When the political climate becomes dangerous because of a military coup, her father sends the two children away to stay with his sister Ifeoma. Their Aunty’s modest home is so very different–full of laughter, lively conversation, and so obviously devoid of cruel authority. Everyone helps, people encourage and tease each other, there is freedom to make choices, and doing the responsible thing is motivated from within rather than beaten into them. Kambili and her brother Jaja get a taste of freedom and unconditional love for the first time. Their minds are opened and things will never be the same again.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977 but has lived and worked in the US. Her book Half of a Yellow Sun was a masterpiece about the Biafran war. As an “American African” (a distinction she makes from “African American”), she has a foot in both worlds and is good at capturing the nuance of racism in America. This book, although it is fiction, has a very personal feel to it, including some stories that she may very well be gleaning from her own experience. There are amazing snapshots of her Nigerian home country. Having lived for many years in a few African countries myself, I can relate to her descriptions and recognize her character types. Her book is full of insights about racism which she first encountered when she moved to the US. Her character Ifemulu says, ” I only became black when I came to America.”
Ifemulu and Obinze fall in love in Lagos when they are both teens. In Nigeria, at that time, there was a continual striving to move out to Western countries, and both achieve this at different times. But their relationship suffers when they are parted and both establish their own lives until they meet again, after many years. Ifemulu is still the gutsy outspoken unique woman that Obinze remembers, and Ifemulu realizes too late that Obinze was always the love of her life. What happens when Ifemulu returns to Nigeria and they meet again, is best left to the reader. This is a slow and thoughtful book and though the story is enjoyable, at times I felt a bit more plot would have made it even more compelling. The strength lies in the observations she makes and the eloquence with which she makes them. I especially enjoyed the section where she comments on the Obama presidential campaign.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an acclaimed and award winning Nigerian author. This book won the Orange Prize in 2007. When asked why she wanted to write a book about the Biafran war she said this:
“I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget. I have always known that I would write a novel about Biafra.”
Few of us can forget the images of starving children from the Biafran war. Stick thin arms, swollen bellies, blank expressions, but what caused the war and what was it really about? In the novel, there are three characters whose lives tell the story. Ugwu, a poor houseboy who works for a University professor and develops a passion for writing. Olanna, a young woman who abandons her life of privilege to live with her revolutionary and charismatic lover. Richard, an English writer who comes as an expatriate and never leaves Nigeria or Olanna’s twin sister.
Earlier this year I heard Adichie speak at a book conference. Her written and spoken voice is insightful, important, and articulate. Though she has studied at Harvard and Yale, she is dedicated to promoting the writer’s craft in her home country of Nigeria, leading yearly workshops in Lagos.
In 2009 Adichie held a TED Talk which captivated me. She talks about the danger of the single story. It is 20 minutes long, but listening to it is time well spent. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie )