This book tells the individual stories of three people living through the Nigerian-Biafran war in the 1960’s. Ugwu’s family have found him the position of houseboy with Odenigbo, a university professor, with outspoken views on politics who not only employs Ugwu, but also arranges for his education. Ugwu is enchanted with his new master and in awe of the debates he overhears in the house, discussing the political, sociological and philosophical state of their country. Keen to impress, he undertakes his duties and his schooling with equal vigour, always looking out for his masters best interests. Odenigbo’s girlfriend, Olanna, soon moves in with him, and on a visit to her family home, we learn about her parents and her twin sister, Kainene, and the expectations placed on both daughters by their parents. They are an affluent family and Olanna is expected to use her beauty and position to improve the family business and their social and political connections, a situation Olanna finds distasteful. Kainene, meanwhile, accepts that whilst they are twins, they are not identical, and without Olanna’s beauty, she has to use her head to make her way in the family business, but for Richard, an English writer who is on an extended trip to Nigeria to research his next work, she is completely captivating, and their relationship brings him into the lives of Olanna and Ugwu through the social gatherings at Odenigbo’s house.
The novel continues to tell their stories, and part two of the book moves us forward to the late 1960’s at the start of the Nigerian-Biafran war, and chronicles how the lives of the three people are impacted by the atrocities they experience and are witness to. The book then jumps back to where part one left off, and we are back in the early sixties. Finally the books moves back to where part three finished during the late sixties and the end of the war, and we discover three very different people from those we started out with.
This book took me a long time to read. I’m usually a fast reader and would have expected this book to take me probably three days, but no more than a week, yet for some reason, I found it difficult to keep concentrating long enough to carry on reading, and it actually took me three weeks to finish. The main characters were interesting, but not compelling; the story was also interesting, but not engrossing. Although I realise the book was set around the three main protagonists, I felt that Odenigbo and Kainene were so integral to the plot, but they were underwritten and not developed enough. I also did not like the device of moving back to the early sixties in part three, and then returning to the late sixties later on. I didn’t feel it added anything to how the characters developed, and while it filled in details to plot lines during the missing years between part one and two that I think we were made to have the wrong assumptions about, I don’t feel it added to the plot, and it actually annoyed me slightly.
For me, it didn’t work. The main characters were well written and I liked the narrative switching between each one in turn, but I didn’t like the style or the choices about the secondary character development, and although it was interesting to read about a savage war I knew nothing about, I just didn’t find it compelling, and a struggle to finish.