The narrative now follows Richard Churchill, an expatriate Englishman in Nigeria. He is living with his girlfriend Susan, who takes him to parties where he stands there quietly and awkwardly. All the other English people make fun of the Nigerians and tell racist jokes about them. Richard has a real interest in ancient Igbo-Ukwu art, particularly roped pots, but the other English people all think he just wants to exploit the art for money. Richard wants to write a book about Nigeria.
Richard is the most important and sympathetic white character of the book, but through him Adichie will subvert the usual Eurocentric trope of the “white savior,” as he is basically ineffectual. After seeing the rich world of the Nigerians, Adichie now shows how most British people still view them as savages and inferior to white people.
Richard has also learned not to talk to other women too much at these parties, or else Susan flies into a jealous rage and breaks a glass when they get home. Richard notices that one time he talked to a Yoruba woman and Susan didn’t act jealous at all, and he realizes that Susan doesn’t consider Nigerian women “equal rivals.”
In Richard’s point of view he never mentions any kind of romantic feeling for Susan, but she is clearly possessively in love with him. Susan is a chilling sort of character, and shows how the racist ideas of most English people of the time were seen as normal but have tragic repercussions.
Richard had been introduced to Susan by his Aunt Elizabeth. When he said he was going to Nigeria, Aunt Elizabeth put him in touch with her and she started showing him around and flirting with him. Susan described the three main tribes of Nigeria: the Hausa as dignified, the Igbo as “surly and money-loving,” and the Yoruba as “first-rate lickspittles.” Susan helped Richard find a car and an apartment, and she started taking him to parties and introducing him as a writer.
Adichie juxtaposes a “normal” flirtation and relationship with Susan’s racist stereotypes about the Nigerians. These are the three largest tribes of Nigeria – the Hausa of the North, who are mostly Muslim (and favored by the British, as they were easiest to rule from afar), the Yoruba in the Southwest, and the Igbo in the Southeast. The Igbo developed the strongest middle-class and originally lived in small republican societies.
Susan then asked Richard to move in with her. Richard didn’t want to agree, but he relented to her persuasion. Since then she has been treating his writing time as something sacred, even though he has hardly been writing at all. Richard is awkward and shy at all the parties Susan takes him too, and he starts practicing a self-deprecating opening line.
Richard seems so sympathetic because he lacks the sense of superiority that most of the white people in Nigeria have. He is awkward and shy with everyone, and doesn’t have Susan’s inclination to feel more “civilized” than the Nigerians.
At one of Susan’s parties Richard meets Kainene. At first he watches her and wonders why she is at the party, but then she is introduced as Chief Ozobia’s daughter, who has just gotten her master’s degree in London. Richard is immediately struck by her presence, and he lies to keep Susan from pulling him away from her. Kainene notices this, and she and Richard make small talk. Kainene is sardonic and pessimistic, and she describes herself and her twin sister Olanna as “meat” to be offered up to suitable bachelors.
Kainene is objectified just like Olanna, but Kainene has a mystique and self-confidence that allows her to speak her mind even when it is seen as “rude.” Like Olanna with Odenigbo, the shy Richard seems drawn to Kainene because of her assertiveness. Adichie slowly reveals details of her characters’ pasts, and we see that both Olanna and Kainene recently got masters’ degrees in London.
Susan finally pulls Richard away, and she describes Chief Ozobia as uneducated and nouveau riche (newly rich and flashy). Richard is suddenly irritated by Susan, and he watches Kainene, her parents, and Olanna across the room. He and Kainene lock eyes once but Richard looks away.
Susan’s criticism of Chief Ozobia is partly justified, but she never even considers the humanity of the family. Richard is rather naïve, but this helps him avoid the racism of his peers.
A few days later Richard calls the operator and finds Kainene’s number. He asks her for a drink and she invites him to a hotel owned by her father. They meet at the balcony of a private suite and discuss their childhoods. Richard’s parents died when he was nine, and he was raised by his nanny Molly. He always felt out of place and often ran away from home.
Richard’s shyness and low self-esteem seems to come from his childhood, as he never had a real sense of identity and belonging. Because of this, he doesn’t have that English sense of superiority, of feeling like he belongs to a more “civilized” culture.
Richard was deeply stirred by seeing an Igbo-Ukwu roped pot in a magazine once, which inspired him to want to come to Africa, but he decides not to tell Kainene this yet. He tells her that he has always been a “loner,” and he came to Nigeria to write. Kainene says he is an exception, as handsome people usually aren’t loners. Richard blushes and Kainene calls him a “modern-day explorer of the Dark Continent.”
The inhabitants of Igbo-Ukwu were the ancestors of the modern Igbo, and they developed a complex system of metal-working in the ninth century without any outside influences. This art was discovered by a Nigerian in 1939, and then excavated by Europeans in 1959-60.
Richard and Kainene meet for lunch for several days after that, and Richard feels a deep connection with her. One day Kainene kisses him. They undress each other, but Richard can’t get aroused. Kainene only shrugs, and they agree to meet next week. At their next meeting Kainene describes the new Nigerian upper class as “illiterates” who only discuss cars.
Kainene criticizes her parents just like Susan did, but Kainene is actually in a position of understanding. Richard feels a romantic connection and sense of belonging with Kainene, but his inability to be aroused by her implies that he either still sees an “otherness” in her or that he lacks confidence in himself.
A few days later they try to have sex again, but this time Richard immediately climaxes. Richard apologizes, and Kainene invites him to dinner with her family that night. Richard agrees. Chief Ozobia asks Richard if he has any business connections in Nigeria, and when Richard says he doesn’t, Chief Ozobia ignores him for the rest of the night. Richard is charmed by Olanna, but she lacks “Kainene’s melancholy mystique.” He longs to know more about Kainene but fears he never will.
The critical Kainene rarely shows emotion, but her actions show that she also feels a connection with Richard. Chief Ozobia is one of the upper-class Nigerians who try to be like the British and exploit everything for money. We never get Kainene’s point of view, though she is one of the central characters, so she always remains more mysterious than Olanna.
Richard worries about how to break up with Susan. He thinks of his relationship with Susan as a “reassuring stability,” while with Kainene he is alternatingly ecstatic and totally insecure. Richard keeps putting off telling Susan about Kainene, and he remembers one day as a child when his nanny Molly called him to dinner, and instead of coming to eat, Richard hid under a hedge until she found him. This short experience made him feel as if he was in total control of his life for a moment.
Much of the culture and politics explored in the novel involves a sense of identity and agency. Richard is a white British man, so he is born with lots of agency, but he still grew up shy and insecure, and he remembers this small moment of childhood as a fleeting time of control and independence. This kind of experience will be important for other characters as well.
Finally Richard breaks up with Susan, saying that their “needs are different.” Susan first accuses him of sleeping with other English women, but then she admits that she pressured him into moving in with her. She apologizes and says he should go off to see more of Nigeria, as he originally wanted to. Richard doesn’t mention Kainene. He packs his things and leaves Susan’s house, feeling overjoyed.
The first romantic “betrayal” of the novel is Richard cheating on Susan with Kainene, although Richard clearly had very few romantic feelings for Susan in the first place. Susan remains a distant and unsympathetic character, but Adichie shows that she too has some deep insecurities.
The next day Richard again fails to have sex with Kainene, and he thinks about finding some African herbs to help him. They are both going to leave Lagos – Richard will go to Nsukka to write, and Kainene will go to her house in Port Harcourt. She agrees that Richard should visit her there. She tells Richard that she asked Olanna to introduce him to her “revolutionary lecturer lover.” Kainene mocks Odenigbo and the foolishness of his socialist ideas.
Richard’s quest for “African manhood herbs” is a comic reflection of Ugwu’s search for the herb to soften Odenigbo’s heart, and shows how naïve Richard is. From Ugwu and Olanna’s point of view Odenigbo is an admirable, brilliant man, but in Kainene’s eyes he suddenly seems overblown and foolish.
Richard tells Kainene that he has left Susan. She is silent for a while, then says that Richard will need a houseboy in Nsukka, and then she suddenly hugs him. Richard feels like a wall has crumbled between them with the hug.
This hug is the first outburst of emotion we have seen from Kainene. She remains an intriguing, complex character throughout the book.
A week later Richard leaves for Nsukka, and he stops at Igbo-Ukwu, the place where the roped pots were excavated. A young man named Emeka Anozie leads him to the patriarch, Pa Anozie, and translates for him. Pa Anozie describes how his brother found the pots twenty years ago, but many years after that some white men came and began an extensive dig.
The actual man who found the Igbo-Ukwu artifacts was named Isiah Anozie. The roped pots are made of bronze, with bronze “rope” knotted around the pot itself in intricate patterns. They will come to act as a symbol for Richard’s relationship with Kainene and Nigeria.
During the excavation the men found many things, including the roped pots and a burial chamber. Richard marvels at the complexity of the Igbo-Ukwu art and civilization even as early as the ninth century. Emeka expects Richard to take photos like all the other white people, but Richard doesn’t even have a camera. Richard drives off, wondering what he is doing with his life and what he will write about.
At this point in the novel the roped pots symbolize Richard’s uniqueness among his English companions, as he loves African art genuinely and has no desire to exploit it. But they are still exotic objects, and Richard can’t help marveling at their “otherness”—he can't help but objectify them.
Richard reaches the university and finds his new home. He is comforted by how sparse and soulless it looks inside. He goes to visit Olanna and Odenigbo and then gets his houseboy, who is a middle-aged man named Harrison. Harrison boasts about being able to cook English food, and insists on cooking it even though Richard wants Nigerian food. Harrison keeps making beets because they are rarely used in Nigerian cuisine, and finally Richard has to ask him to stop.
Harrison is almost a comedic character, but at the same time there is a tragedy in the fact that he clearly holds English culture as superior to his own culture. The British Empire oppressed and exploited Nigeria, but many Nigerians still accept the idea (like what Odenigbo warned Ugwu would be taught in school) that white is superior.
Odenigbo’s gardener Jomo also takes care of Richard’s yard, and one day Richard asks him about “herbs for men.” Jomo says he knows what he means, but they don’t work on white men. Richard walks away disappointed, but he reminds himself that “he [is], after all, the master.” Harrison is disappointed that Richard was talking to Jomo, as Harrison and Jomo don’t like each other.
Richard is sympathetic and shy, but he still has the privilege of easily slipping into the English mindset of himself as “master.” Harrison and Jomo’s feud is played for comedy, but the two men also show the very different worldviews of Nigeria’s lower classes.
Richard starts spending time with Odenigbo and Olanna, and sitting quietly while they and their friends argue about politics. Richard admires Odenigbo’s confidence, which makes him attractive even though he isn’t especially handsome. He keeps admiring Olanna’s beauty as well, and gets slightly jealous of Odenigbo.
The two shyer characters – Olanna and Richard – are most drawn to the two most confident characters – Odenigbo and Kainene. There is romantic love and sibling love in both these relationships, but also that constant admiration.
Richard visits Kainene in Port Harcourt and she shows him into her spacious house and around the grounds. She seems disappointed that he likes Odenigbo and Olanna, but doesn’t say why. They walk through a grove of orange trees and Richard is inexplicably reminded of his childhood in England. He remembers a poem his father used to recite about “blue remembered hills.”
Richard seems to find a sense of identity and belonging in Nigeria and with Kainene, which is different from his English compatriots. His deep connection with Kainene manifests itself in a kind of nostalgia for childhood, as perhaps the last time he felt such a sense of “home.”
Richard is amazed at how busy Kainene is running her family business. She wants to do better than her father did. One day she introduces Richard to Madu Madu, a major in the army and a childhood friend of Kainene’s. Madu is huge and confident, and Richard feels immediately threatened by him. Richard feels that Madu is being condescending, criticizing British people and acting as if he was the host even though they are in Kainene’s house.
We get few details about Kainene’s business, but she has clearly taken agency and is acting entirely on her own, with great success. Madu is sort of the anti-Richard, and Richard is constantly threatened by him. Part of Kainene’s mystery is why she chooses Richard over Madu. Unlike Olanna, she prefers the shy man to the confident one.
Madu invites his friend over, Major Ekechi Udodi, who is very drunk. Udodi criticizes Kainene for “following white men” and disgracing herself. Madu apologizes for him and takes him away. Richard is still irritated and keeps asking Kainene questions about Madu. He is jealous, but doesn’t want Kainene to know, as he feels their relationship is fragile. When he is with her he finally feels like he belongs somewhere.
Richard now explicitly recognizes his connection with Kainene as creating a sense of home and belonging. Most of these side characters who briefly appear (like Udodi) will return under more tragic circumstances. Kainene is criticized just like Richard would be for crossing racial boundaries in her relationship.
The narrative now shifts to a description of a book called “The World Was Silent When We Died.” An unnamed “he” writes its prologue about a woman carrying the severed head of her little girl in a calabash (a gourd used as a container). “He” also mentions other instances of genocides where women carried body parts of their dead children. The book cover is a map of Nigeria, with a circle around the area that became Biafra for three years.
These sections will punctuate certain chapters and give a larger historical perspective to the events of the novel. This poignant, gruesome scene is juxtaposed with the peace and hopefulness of Richard and Kainene’s blossoming romance and life together. Richard is the “writer” character, so we assume that he is the book’s author, but Adichie carefully leaves the author unnamed.