I've often felt that the Orange Prize winners are somehow smaller, more personal, and--dare I say it?--more feminine than the Booker Prize winners. And this novel is perhaps that, intertwining as it does the saga of Olanna, a university professor's beautiful young mistress; Ugwu, the adolescent houseboy of the professor; and Richard, an Englishman who is more-or-less desperately in love with Olanna's fierce, worldly sister.
Told this way, it could almost be a bodice-ripping romance novel. But set in Biafra during Biafra's fight to become independent from Nigeria in the 1960's, this novel becomes so much more.
We follow these three characters through testing times of war, times in which ideas are dangerous, houses are raided, young men are captured and forced to join the army, blockades are run, racial and social hatreds flare into violence, and physical danger and hardship become a way of life. The story of this woman and this family becomes a microcosm for the country itself.
While the scale is small, while we get to know the domestic and personal lives of these characters intimately, there is nothing "romantic" or "feminine" about this book. Instead, what shines through is the human capacity to endure and adapt, to hope and persevere.
Now, in the hospital where they had left him, he no longer wanted to die, but he feared he would; there were so many bodies littered around him, on mats, on mattresses, on the bare floor. There was so much blood everywhere. He heard the sharp screams of men when the doctor examined them and knew that his was not the worst case, even as he felt his own blood seeping out, first warm and then clammy cold against his side. The blood took his will; he was too exhausted to do anything about it and when the nurses hurried past him and left his bandaging unchanged, he did not call out to them. . . . And in his lucid moments, death occupied him. He tried to visualize a heaven, a God seated on a throne, but could not. Yet the alternative vision, that death was nothing but an endless silence, seemed unlikely. There was a part of him that dreamed, and he was not sure if that part could ever retreat into an interminable silence. Death would be a complete knowingness, but what frightened him was this: not knowing beforehand what it was he would know.
*Because Blogger ate my paragraphs, the original paragraphs in this excerpt no longer appear. My apologies for the inaccurate spacing.