A few days ago there was a quote going around on Facebook:
The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.
The main problem with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel is that it is too big. The story is set across the Biafran War and takes on some super-human challenges along the way: Colonialism; African cultural diversity; war and war-crimes; humanitarian crises; sisters. It really has an amazing scope.
And yet, for all of the potential, this novel is curiously unaffecting. All of the emotional cues are there, but they are never brought to bear (unlike Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which had me blubbering unabashedly even as I felt completely manipulated).
The story centres on a number of personal relationships, which I think is the correct instinct, but it is too unfocused. Is the house-boy, Ugwu, the glue that binds the tale, or is it the relationship between twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, or their respective romantic relationships? At certain junctures it is each of these, lasting only a moment before moving to the next.
The depiction of personal relationships are quite divergent. On one hand, the studies are character driven and are nuanced and individual in their observations. On the other, they tend to the soap-operatic.
The action of the novel is treated similarly schizophrenically. Much like The Kite Runner, the novel is at its most interesting in its depictions of a pre-war society. The war and the resultant humanitarian crisis (that is, humanitarian crisis as an act of war) is handled much less deftly than Ugwu’s removal from his tribe to take up a position as Odenigbo’s house-boy, for example.
The novel swings wildly between quiet introspection and fever-pitch with barely any notes in between. The moments of high-drama become almost bland in the relentlessness of their tone—an effect of being too big to write about. Instead of writing about a “kid’s burnt socks” we are instead given a fleeing scene where a barely before seen servant is decapitated and yet continues to run.
Although fictionalised, the novel has a ring of authenticity to it, and indeed, the author based much of the action on stories from her parents and others of the generation that survived the Biafran War. Generally, I dislike recommending (blatantly) for edification but this book has real value as an historical textbook.
Tonal flaws aside, the style and the pacing are adequate. The story is broken in to four sections and we move between the early and late sixties. This allows for some light suspense but does not produce the convergent climaxes of other books, such as Leila Aboulela’s Minaret or Liam Murray Bell’s The Busker.
Overall, the book is rewarding on an intellectual level but fails to engage on a more visceral level. This restraint would certainly have been better served reining in the melodrama and perhaps even the ambitious nature of the story—writing small instead of being swept up by the epicness of it all.