I'm reading Half of a Yellow Sun at the moment. It's a fantastic book - very understated and genuine, and most of all personal. The Nigerian-Biafran war was something I only knew the vaguest of details about, and as I got into the book, the sensation of being drawn into this huge historical event was at once both wonderful and awful.
It's the same feeling I had when I read Birds Without Wings a couple of years ago. These novels present you with something which was the absolute centre of the world for people in that time and place, and allows you to engage with it on that level. I love that in a way - it makes me feel as though I'm gaining something from being out in these important parts of the world, at least mentally. But it also makes me feel as though there is an infinity of things like this - events which are so important and about which I know so little (and can do so little about), and I feel helpless from knowing that.
There's a quote in Half of a Yellow Sun that describes that feeling - of being overwhelmed by the reality of the world and shocked that you don't collapse from the weight of that awful knowledge. It's so perfectly formed:
"It frightened him that he slept well at nights, that he was still calmed by the scent of orange leaves and the turquoise stillness of the sea..."