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Not to be Overlooked

By Jasmine Aldridge and Natalia Alvarez


Not to be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller.


Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review by Jasmine Aldridge

 

Set in sixties Nigeria, Half of a Yellow Sun centres around the civil war that unfolds across the decade. Adichie masterfully captures this time of pivotal unrest as the Biafra struggle to form an independent republic by following the lives of three characters who find themselves ensnared in these seismic shifts. Opening with the perspective of thirteen-year-old Ugwu, as he becomes a houseboy for a university lecturer, the novel begins by introducing nuances of class, home and allegiance that will continue to erupt throughout the story. Fluidly, we are then introduced to Olanna, a privileged daughter of Chief Ozobia who has abandoned her old life to live with her lover – the revolutionary lecturer who is also the master of Ugwu. Finally, Adichie introduces Richard, who is an awkward English writer travelling to explore Igbo-Ukwu art and finds himself entranced by Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene. As the violence of the civil war plays out, these three lives become inextricably tangled together as the boundaries of love, loyalty and identity are pushed to their limits. 

 

This is truly an incredible read. For most, this novel signifies an introduction to the Biafran conflict and Adichie leads us through the complexities of the war with deliberate intention and grace. Each thread that the novel follows feels independently complete, yet the shifts in voice as we glide between the lives of the characters hammers home the sense that everyone is as afloat as each other. Nonetheless, as the novel progresses, our attachment to these characters grows and the connections that they have forged between them are increasingly offset by the looming presence of war. Throughout, there are moments of shocking violence and grief as the war advances into the lives of the three characters, spiralling any sense of security as everyone struggles to find their place in the conflict. Adichie foregrounds some of the intense scenes of the massacre with astonishing empathy and narrative skill. As readers, we are encouraged to reflect on how class, politics and colonialism conflate with moral responsibility and loyalty to one’s own. 

 

Adichie writes with heart, tenderness and extraordinary skill to combine the turmoil of human emotion with the complex, ever-changing landscape of civil war. Half of a Yellow Sun is a literary masterpiece that combines historical truth with creative storytelling. It is a novel that has indefinitely found its place as a work of triumph and certainly deserves to be read by everyone. 


The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller

Review by Natalia Alvarez


Derek B. Miller’s newest novel, The Curse of Pietro Houdini, is as intricate as it is refreshing. He is the author of six highly acclaimed novels, with The Curse of Pietro Houdini sure to follow. Released in January 2024 by Avid Reader Press, this is a historical novel like no other, taking a glance at Italy during World War II as readers follow characters in the midst of an intricately planned art theft. What follows is a journey through war-infested lands, examining culture, human interaction and the importance of love and loyalty. Lovers of historical fiction will not be disappointed by this riveting tale.


As the novel begins, we learn it is set towards the end of the war, with the Allies having nearly taken back the country by brutal means. Citizens in Italy have paid the price of German occupation and our protagonist, fourteen-year-old Massimo, has lost much in this war. After his parents are killed during a bombing in Rome, he sets off on his own, traversing the country by foot. Intent on reaching Naples, where he has relatives, he accepts help where he can find it. While on this journey, he meets the mysterious Pietro Houdini, whose past remains a constant mystery Massimo wishes to unravel. Pietro takes him under his wing after being brutally beaten on the streets and left for dead, with promises to help him reach his destination. Massimo agrees to accompany Pietro to the monastery at Monte Cassino, where he claims to be working as an art conservator. Shortly after their arrival, the Germans begin pressing for all art to be handed over, stating their fear that Monte Cassino would not be spared an attack. What follows is a scheme unlike any other, as the pair attempt to smuggle three priceless paintings to safety, making new friends and allies along the way.


While on this journey, Massimo begins to piece together the enigma that is Pietro Houdini. A man of art, history, culture and religion who carefully shapes Massimo’s understanding of the world around him. 


Filled with tales of love and hate, self-discovery and self-preservation, The Curse of Pietro Houdini showcases World War II from a perspective that has yet to be explored. It entices readers to consider all they know of art and culture and how a war can shape a generation. Pick up The Curse of Pietro Houdini to discover the secrets of the man as elusive as his namesake.

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