Published by Harper Perennial on 2005
Genres: Historical Fiction
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.
She seemed so happy, so at peace, and I wondered how anybody around me could feel that way when liquid fire was raging inside me, when fear was mingling with hope and clutching itself around my ankles.
Purple Hibiscus is the first book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I’ve read, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last. I loved this book so much and felt deeply connected to the characters and story. It was such an insightful and thought-provoking read, I couldn’t put it down and was utterly absorbed in these characters’ lives.
The novel is narrated by 15-year-old Kambili who lives in Nigeria with her parents and older brother, Jaja. Her father is an extremely wealthy man in the area and so they live in a beautiful house, the children go to one of the best private schools and it seems the family has it all. The reader quickly realises, however, that looks can be deceiving. Kambili, Jaja and their mother live in constant fear of Kambili’s father, Eugene, who is a religious zealot and rules over his family with the utmost authority, often resorting to mental and physical abuse. Eugene is very generous towards the wider community, as long as they are Christians, but rigidly determines his family’s every action by, for example, writing detailed daily schedules for his kids. There is no joy, laughter or freedom of speech in Kambili’s household, to the extent that Kambili and Jaja don’t even dare to talk openly with each other.
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.
But then, one day, Kambili’s aunt and her cousins come to visit and they end up convincing Eugene to let Jaja and Kambili spend a week at their house. Gradually, Kambili’s and Jaja’s eyes are opened to a different life and the privileges that other children their age experience.
This book was amazing. The writing was very different from what I expected of a novel categorized as literary fiction. It was accessible and easy to fall into, straightforward but not in a negative way. Adichie doesn’t overly decorate her words and the prose is concise yet she still manages to infuse her words with the emotion and sorrowfulness befitting the story.
The characters are extremely fleshed-out and complex. Eugene is a character you hate, and yet you can understand him and his moral dilemma. He is deeply ashamed of his country and heritage, almost shockingly charitable to those who have conformed to Catholicism, but treats those who have not – such as his own father – as heathens and does not even deign to speak to them. He is obsessed with the idea of sin, which results in him dictating his family, and comes across as an unhinged character who is being consumed by his own religious fanaticism. It would have been so easy for Adichie to make him the villain, to have him be irredeemable. But instead she made him so human that, even though I hated him, I also felt pity.
I loved Kambili as a narrator. She was written masterfully; Kambili isn’t special or even particularly strong. She doesn’t fully comprehend what is going on in her life, doesn’t understand that the way her father treats her is unacceptable, doesn’t rebel against his authority. Instead, she tries to please and appease him in every way she knows how. She loves him, worships him, believes him to be the great man everyone around her tells her he is. This made her so incredibly relatable to me. I was worried I would start finding her frustrating after a while but fortunately that didn’t happen. Her actions reflected the abuse she has gone through and I wanted to jump into the book and give her a hug so badly.
It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized 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.
I also appreciated the insight into Nigerian culture as well as what colonialism means for a native population. The story is set against the backdrop of a recent military coup and we get small glimpses into what is going on in the country through the worsening circumstances of Kambili’s family, but the book isn’t about that. It is and remains a book about family and their dynamics, as well as Kambili’s inner turmoil and growth.
Purple Hibiscus is a beautifully told coming-of-age story full of tension and perfectly paced. It was both enlightening and harrowing, but also gave me a strange sense of nostalgia. I recommend it to everyone and cannot wait to read my next book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.