Title: Purple Hibiscus
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Genre/Themes: Literary Fiction, Coming of Age, Cultural – Nigerian, Religion, Political Unrest
Blurb from Goodreads
Fifteen-year-old Kambili’s world is circumscribed by the high walls and frangipani trees of her family compound. Her wealthy Catholic father, under whose shadow Kambili lives, while generous and politically active in the community, is repressive and fanatically religious at home.
When Nigeria begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili’s father sends her and her brother away to stay with their aunt, a University professor, whose house is noisy and full of laughter. There, Kambili and her brother discover a life and love beyond the confines of their father’s authority. The visit will lift the silence from their world and, in time, give rise to devotion and defiance that reveal themselves in profound and unexpected ways.
This is a book about the promise of freedom; about the blurred lines between childhood and adulthood; between love and hatred, between the old gods and the new.
“We did that often, asking each other questions whose answers we already knew. Perhaps it was so that we would not ask the other questions, the ones whose answers we did not want to know.”
Purple Hibiscus tells the story of 15 year old Kambili. She lives at home with her brother and her parents.
From the outside Kambili’s wealthy family seem to have it all but looks can be deceiving and Kambili’s home-life is far from comfortable. She, her brother and mother all live in fear of Kambili’s father Eugene. To the wider community he is a charismatic man who people respect, is generous with his wealth and is a vocal supporter of just causes with his newspaper….
But at home there is another side to him. He is religious to the extreme and rules over his family with fear and violence. He is both physically and mentally abusive to his family. There is no joy in Kambili’s home, there is no laughter…everything is regimented and sterile. Eugene even treats his own ailing father with coldness and refuses to let his children have normal contact with their grandfather as he has not chosen the catholic faith and is viewed as a heathen.
Eugene is a deeply complicated character; a man living in a world between old gods and new gods, a man deeply ashamed of himself and his heritage, a man who is charitable to the extreme to those who follow catholic teachings but who views all others as heathens who are damned for eternity… it could be very easy to have painted this character as a one dimensional hateful figure…and I do utterly hate him, but Adichie wrote his story with such care and attention to detail that I as a reader could understand him, how troubled he is… at times I even pitied him…that is an amazing skill as an author. Eugene believes that his way of life, his punishment of his family is nothing more than repentance and that this is the way of God.
“Everything I do for you, I do for your own good,” Papa said. “You know that?”
But to me the most utterly heart-breaking aspect of this story is that Kambili doesn’t seem to realise that she is oppressed by her father. She loves him and worships him. She is proud of him. She treats him with an almost reverential respect.
“But I knew Papa would not be proud. He had often told Jaja and me that he did not spend so much money on Daughters of the Immaculate Heart and St. Nicholas to have us let other children come first. Nobody had spent money on his schooling, especially not his Godless father, our Papa-Nnukwu, yet he had always come first. I wanted to make Papa proud, to do as well as he had done. I needed him to touch the back of my neck and tell me that I was fulfilling God’s purpose. I needed him to hug me close and say that to whom much is given, much is expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside me.
But I had come second.
I was stained by failure.”
There is a constant sense of tension throughout the pages of this novel, the characters are constantly repressing their feelings for fear of retribution…until the point when Kambili and her brother Jaja take a trip to visit their Aunt Ifeoma… Aunt Ifeoma is Eugene’s sister and she is aware of her brother’s religious zeal and tyrannical behaviour towards his family.
“Every time Aunty Ifeoma spoke to Papa, my heart stopped, then started again in a hurry. It was the flippant tone; she did not seem to recognise that it was Papa, that he was different, special.”
Ifeoma tries to encourage Kambili and Jaja, she introduces them to a different way of living, introduces them to their cousins and shows them how family life should be… When Kambili and Jaja are visiting Ifeoma something happens to the writing style too and I as a reader felt the characters relaxing ever so slightly… And Kambili begins to blossom in her own very shy and quiet way.
“It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realised then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.”
This is a beautiful and heart breaking coming of age story set against the backdrop of political and social unrest in a post-colonial Nigeria. Kambili is such a wonderful main character. My Goodreads friend Anne, who recommended this book to me, called her a most ordinary heroine, she is just like you or I. That is what is so captivating about her. I just wanted to jump into the pages of this novel and hug her! I wanted her to know that she was special, that she was worthwhile. I shed so many tears reading some of the passages in this book…how Kambili did not realise that she should not be punished like she was, that she wasn’t deserving of such violent penance…
There was an old rule in the Catholic faith that you do not eat for an hour or so before you receive the Body of Christ at Mass… However there was one particularly harrowing moment in the book when Kambili got her period just before Mass. Her mother gave her some Panadol for her menstrual cramps and told her to eat a small bowl of cornflakes so as not to be taking the pain medication on an empty stomach. Eugene discovered this and beat everyone with his belt shouting “Why do you walk into sin? Why do you like sin”…he was a deeply unhinged character who was deranged by his zealousness.
I loved everything about this book, the writing style, the depth of the characters, the heart, the emotion… it all just combined to make a beautiful and timeless coming of age story, one that I look forward to rereading time and again.
“His letters dwell on me. I carry them around because they are long and detailed, because they remind me of my worthiness, because they tug at my feelings. Some months ago, he wrote that he did not want me to seek the whys, because there are some things that happen for which we can formulate no whys, for which whys simply do not exist and, perhaps, are not necessary. He did not mention Papa—he hardly mentions Papa in his letters—but I knew what he meant, I understood that he was stirring what I was afraid to stir myself.”
Other Works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I’ve Reviewed
- Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
- Half of a Yellow Sun
- The Thing Around Your Neck
- Various Short Stories
- We Should All Be Feminists