War cuts across class, gender, race. The privileged Igbo woman. The Igbo houseboy from the village. The white Englishman in love with Igbo art. Three voices for this story, three hearts cut by the grief of a war from which are all somewhat protected: Olanna by her familiy’s wealth, Ugwu by the status and resources of his employers, and Richard by his whiteness and foreign-ness. Yet their passions, their attachments, not least for Biafra itself, leave them exposed, vulnerable to the wounds they could have run to escape. To love is fiercely courageous, for in love we are at risk.
But for many sunny chapters there is no war, only romance joyful and at times frustrated, jealousies, family quarrels silent and spoken, critique of (neo)colonialism, sexism, materialism, class oppression, old bigotries under scrutiny. This is important: what I love about fictions written around histories of horror is that they offer the pre-disaster openings of stories worth hearing, stories that I want to know the next chapter and the end of, stories I mourn when they are crushed, exploded, torn to shreds by the catastrophe. Adichie does it here, as Radwa Ashour does (magnificently, though very differently) in
The Woman from Tantoura
. Here, the calm before the storm has an additional political function as it works against the racist notions voiced by foreign journalists and media and indicts colonialism and its legacy for the conflict.
Another satisfying element is physical description that affirms the beauty of blackness. Olanna and her sister are both lovingly described as dark-skinned and Olanna, regarded as more attractive, as full figured, rounded and curvy. Their mother’s face is said to be so exquisitely lovely that her friends nickname her ‘Art’, a detail that throws light on the cultural location of and relationship between creative endeavour and aesthetic appreciation among this sophisticated milieu.
Adichie’s warmth and compassion as a writer infuse her characters and their trajectories. It’s significant to me that Olanna in particular is stunned and sickened by brutality towards people she personally hates for their earlier behaviour towards her, and often suppresses distaste and anxiety to spare the feelings of others. Olanna’s sister Kainene and Richard are also shown to have this deeply felt ethical sense, and it is this quality that is missing from the people who are mocked and villified by their own words in Adichie’s light: it is empathy here that divides the vile from the virtuous, not style, not charm. Kainene is blunt, taciturn, often scornful, and her friend, the army General Madu, is tactless and unfriendly, but Adichie proves their high worth. The most execrable characters, the appallingly racist Susan and some of the other whites, are unable to relate to or recognise black Africans as people. This is precisely the sociopathy of whiteness. Between these poles are the small kindnesses, cruelties, foibles and prejudices of ordinary folk, generously and colourfully painted in Adichie’s lively, naturalistic style.
For me the most intriguing and touching relationship is between Olanna and her twin Kainene, but both of the central romantic loves are also compelling, since Adichie’s choice of narrative voice has Richard, insecure and besotted, worrying over his relationship with Kainene, whose thoughts always have to be guessed at, and Olanna and Odenigbo enjoy a passion that brings them both to blazing life (it’s very erotic). The device of having only one partner narrate also enables her to show intense trauma from the perspective of the afflicted when Olanna breaks down because of what she has witnessed, and later from another side when Odenigbo withdraws into silent depression after a personal loss. I think Adichie’s ability to give shape to so many different qualities and depths of connection between people is exceptional.
If character and relationships are what stand out about the writing here, rendering a large cast believeable and beloved, then that isn’t at the expense of suspenseful plotting. Adichie makes full use of the dramatic potential of having three voices converge, retreat from each other, track back over different memories, cover different ground. Ugwu’s perspective works his identification with Olanna and especially her love partner Odenigbo to elaborate the amusing, affectionate sketch of his personality , but also bears witness to ugly undersides of events. Richard’s consciousness often reveals a sense of entitlement and egotism, but he also has humility and a redeeming capacity for love. Adichie suggests that whites involved with Africa have hard learning to do. Richard and Ugwu are both ‘educated’ in the course of events, and in a sense their learning obliges them to exchange roles, a politically significant resolution gracefully attained.
While the braided structure has non-linear elements and multivalent descriptive modes, the three narrators are all reliable and the narrative has a certain slightly fatalistic obediance that eases towards comfortable novelistic cliché. For me this results in a cosiness that makes a harsh world more habitable, just as cliche makes a language more speakable, makes relating ourselves easier, if less precise. It is reassuring that the stories corroborate; this happened. For a history still suppressed, a steadfast bearing witness feels necessary. Yet there is an edge of postmodernist sensibility here, an internal commentary and second handedness emerging as another writer is imagined remaking the tales. Thus, Adichie, who has purported to speak for three people, gently reveals the illusion, and reminds us again of the danger of the single story.