Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Fourth Estate, $195 With her award-winning debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was heralded as the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe, a giant of African literature. Walking in a giant's footsteps requires fearlessness, and in Half of a Yellow Sun, her second novel, Adichie takes on the Nigerian civil war of the 1960s. In 1967, the Igbo of eastern Nigeria seceded to form the independent nation of Biafra, resulting in a three-year war. Ugwu, a 13-year-old houseboy is the story's main narrator. His master, Odenigbo, is a university professor and an ardent anti-colonial whose passionate sermons on self-reliance have drawn a circle of admirers and attracted Olanna. The voluptuous, young, London-educated beauty has abandoned her life of privilege (and a long line of suitors) for the charisma of her new lover. Meanwhile, her twin sister, Kainene, tall, angular and icily remote, helps manage their rich father's business interests. Enter Richard, a shy Englishman enthralled by Igbo-Ukwu art, who is trying to write a book about Nigeria. Dismayed by his countrymen's condescension towards Africans, lost in the expatriate crowd, he falls for the enigmatic Kainene. Adichie takes these five on an epic journey through the 60s, and explores how war, with its tentacles of brutality, loss and hunger, ensnares and transforms people. The narrative leapfrogs between early and late 60s - a device that makes for a pacy story and intrigues the reader by presenting a familiar character transformed: Odenigbo, an agitator, trudging into the interior to educate people; Olanna queuing up for powdered egg yolk while dreaming of her lace tablecloth; Richard writing articles for the Propaganda Directorate; and Ugwu, forcibly conscripted, training for his first operation. As the pages turn, the process of transformation is unveiled and, with it, the itinerant miseries of colonialism, racial superiority and political jockeying. Half of a Yellow Sun, the symbol of an independent Biafra, stood for a glorious future. It was sewn on the uniform of soldiers who were drafted from Igbo intellectuals and peasants alike, some as young as 10. All were united in their belief that 'Biafra will win this war, God has written it in the sky' - even as the soldiers held bamboo guns and the world refused to recognise Biafra. Adichie (below) describes with quiet power the horror and senselessness of this war. Olanna is invited by a woman to look into a calabash. Inside is a young girl's head - with braided hair and open mouth. 'Do you know?' the woman says. 'It took me so long to plait this hair. She had such thick hair.' At some point, it seems that the world, once rational, has tipped over. As sirens sound, people scramble into bunkers, shrapnel hits a man and his headless body keeps running, and another man struck in the stomach tries to hold in his intestines. 'Imagine children with arms like toothpicks, with footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin ...' The novel's leit motif is allegiance - to land, to ethnicity, to loved ones. Odenigbo's mother won't leave her home, even as Nigerian soldiers advance. Olanna's love ruptures dangerously when she discovers Odenigbo's infidelity, yet she can't tear herself away. Odenigbo, the Biafran zealot, works mindlessly at the Manpower Directorate amassing names and addresses, yet returns home with lit-up eyes. Cool-headed Kainene throws herself into relief work, risking her life on occasions. Adichie (who divides her time between the US and Nigeria) effortlessly evokes her homeland, in the cassava patches and cashew trees, pepper soup, fried plantains and superstitions - and the text lyrically interspersed with Igbo words. When Odenigbo's disapproving mother meets Olanna she rebukes her: 'I hear you did not suck your mother's breasts ... you witch.' Half of a Yellow Sun is history brought alive - a powerful story, wisely told without judgment. It's also a deft illustration by Adichie of the skill required of every writer to be a storyteller first. In recounting this savage tale she has kept the plot moving, never forgetting the reader. As Achebe has acknowledged: 'Adichie came almost fully made.'