Hardcover, 433 pages
Published: September 12, 2006 by Knopf (1st published 2006)
This vivid, absorbing, and — at times — excruciatingly painful novel, set in Nigeria during the 1960s, revolves around twin sisters. Olanna and Kainene are the daughters of a wealthy Igbo chief and businessman.
It alternates among three points of view. Ugwu is houseboy to Olanna’s lover, Odenigbo, a revolutionary professor. Ugwu comes from a village where a corrugated iron roof on a mud hut is a tremendous luxury, so he revels in the relative opulence of Odenigbo’s modest house. Odenigbo’s home becomes a salon where local intellectuals gather to talk, and Ugwu, who is keenly intelligent, absorbs everything going on around him. We also see the story through Olanna’s eyes and from the point of view of Richard, Kainene’s English expatriate lover.
The author deftly navigates the perspectives of these three people, from vastly different backgrounds, portraying Nigeria in a time of a brutal civil war and genocide. She brilliantly describes the progression of the war and how it affects everyone, from peasants to a wealthy chief’s family. Watching their suffering increase, I felt the tightening fear, helplessness, frustration, and outrage. This effect is heightened by unforgettable images: ragged soldiers holding fake wooden rifles, sick, malnourished babies with thinning hair and swollen bellies, and the head of a murdered girl, hair lovingly braided, which her mother carries in a basket.
The author’s gorgeous use of language, the suspense, and the flow of the story are absorbing. Even more compelling is its complex and jarringly believable exploration of grief, loss, and human evil. The story reveals many shades of grief. We see the kind that swallows you and cripples you. And we see people learning of deaths and continuing as if nothing happened, because tragedy has simply become part of the fabric of daily life. This novel explores variations of evil, from murder and cruelty to staying silent, in another part of the world, while atrocities take place. We also get a glimpse of a heinous crime committed by a character who is not evil. This is ugly and painful, but it helps the reader better understand humanity.
This is a brilliant novel, with deeply flawed characters who are vividly painted, moments of sensuality and joy, and a picture of evil and suffering that is gut-wrenching, but also illuminating. It does what phenomenal novels do — it helps us understand humanity, and our history, a bit better by taking us on a journey that is both foreign and wrenchingly familiar.