In 1960's Nigeria, at the time of the vicious Nigeria-Biafra war, three characters are swept up in the rapidly unfolding political events. One is Ugwu, a young boy from a poor village, who is employed as a houseboy for a university lecturer. The other is a young middle-class woman, Olanna, who has come to live with the professor, abandoning her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the idealism and charisma of her new lover. And the third is Richard, a tall, shy Englishman who is in thrall to Olanna's twin sister, a remote and enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone.
When Olanna witnesses deeds of unimaginable horror in the outbreak of war, all of these characters are propelled into events that will putt them apart and bring them together in the most unexpected ways. As Nigerian troops advance and they run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another. This extraordinary novel is about Africa itself; about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism: about ethnic allegiances; about class and race; and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things.
There have been several books by Nigerian authors that I have been tempted to read over the years including the debut novel by this author, called Purple Hibiscus, but I had never managed to get around to it! So, when I decided to read the long list nominees for the Orange Prize, this was the first book that I requested.
For me, a big part of the reason for my interest in Nigerian literature is that my ex is half Nigerian and was raised in Lagos from the time he was 3 months old, and lived there until he was about 28. Whilst I wouldn't necessarily say that my relationship with him necessarily exposed me to the best parts of Nigerian culture, (I mainly got to meet his friends - all young men between the ages of 20 to 30, and for the most part they were interested in partying), the fact of the matter is that my son has a Nigerian-St Dominique-Australian heritage, and so a lot of the time I feel like I should be doing more to ensure that he understands his heritage. Right from the time my son was born, I was the one trying to push the ex into sharing language, heritage...even that there were other kids like him with a similar mixed heritage. Unfortunately, the ex never really got on board with this, and these days he doesn't even phone very often to say hello let alone to talk about anything like this. All that is a very long winded way for me to say that in some ways I feel a connection to the subject of this novel....without ever actually having been to Nigeria, or really having much interest in going to visit!! Of course, he is Yoruba, so the characters of this book would quite possibly be horrified at my idea of this sense of connection!
This book is separated into four parts. The first part is set in the early 1960's, the second in the late 1960's, with the pattern repeated for the third and fourth parts. In the first part, we meet our protagonists. Firstly we meet Ugwu, the shy young village boy who has come to the university town of Nsukka to become houseboy to the idealistic university professor Odenigbo. Then we meet Olanna, the daughter of a wealthy but, ultimately, corrupt Igbo businessman, who has decided to move in with Odenigbo, and there is Richard, who is in love with Olanna's twin sister Kainene. The early parts of the novel are filled with the zealousness of the intellectuals who want to see the Igbo tribes have a land of their own, full of the promise and the excitement of such a venture. And then in part 2 (set in 1967) we see the beginning of the war.
Not only have events changed the direction of the country of Nigeria, but within the personal lives of the characters much has changed. Ugwu is still houseboy, but he has now been educated and finds himself in the end helping assuming many roles - houseboy, babysitter, friend, confidante and even teacher in some parts of the book. Richard finds himself in the somewhat strange position of being a white man who speaks fluent Igbo and becomes involved in the war propaganda machine. However many of the key relationships in the book are now fractured, and it is only as the narrative returns once again to the early 1960s that we find out what caused those divides.
As the war continues on, we see many things through the eyes of the characters - death, destruction, rape, massacres - and the author does a fine job of giving just enough information to haunt the reader without being too overbearing with the details.
The other area where she has excelled is in showing the dichotomy of the situation in Nigeria at that time - the colonials had withdrawn to let the country men rule themselves but there were such levels of greed, mistrust and corruption that trouble was inevitable. The ethnic divides were just so strong particularly after some of the minority Igbo staged a coup, and then there were retaliatory massacres. And yet, as individuals there were friendships with people from other tribes that were able to survive all the violence - perhaps damaged, but still somewhat intact.
The double standards were not only in terms of the problems facing the nation as a whole. I remember thinking it quite ironic that even within the personal standards of the characters there was the hypocrisy. For example, at the first sign of trouble, Olanna's parents flee Nigeria to live in relative luxury in London, and return only when the trouble is over,and this happens more than once and for another small example. At one point Odenigbo is driving to Ugwu's home village:
The ride to his village was mostly silent. As they drove past some farms with rows and rows of corn and cassava like a neatly plaited hairstyle, Master said, "See? This is what our government should focus on. If we learn irrigation technology, we can feed this country easily. We can overcome this colonial dependence on imports."
And yet on arrival at his village he is offered pineapple:
Chioke shook Master's hands with both of hers. "Thank you, master. Deje!" She ran back inside and emerged with a small pineapple that she pressed into Master's hand.
"No, no," Master said, pushing the pineapple back. "Local pineapples are too acidic, they burn my mouth."
As we get to the last quarter of the book, the war is in full swing. Even those who are wealthy are feeling the effects of the blockades imposed by the Nigerian army, and the world looks on as millions starve, as innocent people are killed. And as the situation worsens our characters are bought together again, but not before the war claims parts of their soul, and perhaps more, forever.
Many of the details in this book were fascinating. It is not an easy to read book, and nor would I say it was something that you enjoy in a light and accessible way. It is a book to savour and to contemplate as you read. I will definitely be reading more from this author.
Originally posted at Reading Adventures May 2007