The novel is told through three characters' points of view: Ugwu, a houseboy for the Odenigbo, an enigmatic professor with strong revolutionary dreams; Olanna, the beautiful mistress of Odenigbo; and Richard, a white, British man who falls in love with Kainene, Olanna's twin sister. I can say that I knew that either Odenigbo or Kainene would die at the end of the book, simply for the fact that their points of views weren't written and that I sensed that the main characters needed to experience real loss. The novel was vivid and harsh in its reality and yet was not grotesque. I never got the sense that Adichie was just trying to shock us with the harsh details, rather, the details always seemed pertinent and real. The violence was reeling and shocking, and the book led into it in a manner that made its impact more powerful.
Rather than starting us off in the war, Adichie began the novel in the early sixties, when the discontent for the government was just beginning. Adichie then takes an interesting approach, jumping back and forth from the early sixties to the late sixties during the war. This structure was confusing to me and I couldn't grasp a clear purpose for it. I liked getting to know the characters before the war began, but going back and forth didn't seem to accomplish much other than creating slight suspense with the whole Richard/Olanna incident. I remember reading in an interview with Adichie that she chose to do this because stories aren't told chronologically when told orally, but honestly, I still don't really get her reasoning or her purpose. Overall, I found it distracting, and possibly the Only criticism I could give this book. Just as I was getting into the war, she'd pull me back into the early sixties and vise versa. For me, it broke up the flow of the book.
The stories of the three characters are undoubtedly powerful and painful. The views were varied by the character's positions, Olanna was from a wealthy family, Ugwu was from a poor, and Richard was British. Adichie built up the reader's trust and care into the characters before testing the readers by pushing the characters to some ugly acts. The affair between Olanna and Richard is not only horrible, but also heartbreaking that Olanna would disregard her sister so much and that Richard was so infatuated with Olanna's beauty that he'd further reinforce the "ugly sister" feeling Kainene had grown up feeling. But perhaps the most shocking and disgusting was Ugwu's rape of the girl at the bar. My heart sank when he participated and I could never look at Ugwu the same again. Although I didn't want him to die and I still liked him, my disappointment was real and lasting. It brought to light traits in Ugwu I had only suspected, an inherent weakness in being easily influenced, shown first by his unabated adoration of "Master" and Olanna. Ugwu is not a leader and he does not like to be thought poorly of, and so it is these qualities that allowed him to gang rape a poor girl. The irony of Ugwu's much loved sister being gang raped might at first seem too convenient, but with the knowledge that it is very common for women to be gang raped during war, it is very probable that Ugwu's sister would fall victim to it as well.
The most painful and most enlightening parts of the novel was how the war changed people. While Odenigbo, the bright revolutionary light at the beginning of the novel, deteriorated in his disillusionment and disappointment, Kainene grew from the cold, rejecting sarcastic woman to a tower of strength and confidence. The rock for all of those around her. Olanna, Richard and Ugwu also changed, becoming more somber, perhaps more cynical. However, they held their own in the brutal war and fought hard for survival. Olanna grew to see things through her own eyes and not Odenigbo's, she learned to be independent. Ugwu found a way to express himself and keep himself mentally safe during hard times, through words, reading and writing. Richard learned to identify himself with a family in a way he was never able to do in England, he finally felt at home. Was I sad that it was Kainene and not Odenigbo that disappeared at the end of the novel? Of course, but I think that was Adichie's intent. Kainene had become everyone's rock, and she was ripped away at the same time Biafra fell. It was Kainene who represented the heart of the revolution, not Odenigbo. He was all show but didn't have the strength to carry the revolution, to support it at it's roots as Kainene did. Her strength was unimaginable and created from years of feeling like the ugly sister, the unfavored sister. An inner strength that none of the other characters possessed and in the end was more beautiful then Odenigbo's charisma, Olanna's physical beauty, Richard's devotion to a culture that is not his own, or Ugwu's devotion to people who are not his family.
This novel made me cry and deeply shook my insides. I feel changed and felt almost lost as I closed the last pages. I didn't want it to end because I wanted Kainene to be found. I wanted to start another novel immediately to fill the emptiness that finishing the book left in me, and yet that didn't feel right either. How could I dive into a new novel so soon after this amazing book? It is a book that will sit with me for a while, deep in my chest were the powerful novels always do, somewhere between fiction and real life.
Truly one of the best books I've read in a while.