by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
I am such a big fan of Chimamanda’s books. I have read almost all of her works over the years—but I had yet to read this one (which is her first), so I knew it was time to finally dig into the beloved Purple Hibiscus.
If you’ve read summaries of this book, you’ve likely heard things like: “the oppressive regime,” “the oppressive father,” “the oppressive religion,” “the oppressive heat.” It sounds like a depressing story—but it’s not. A teenager finds her voice. She learns to laugh. She learns to run and play in a place where purple hibiscus grows. Chimamanda strikes a beautiful balance—there is a thread of joy and hope throughout, despite all of the terrible events that aren’t articulated but are still felt by the reader.
I found this such an enjoyable book to read. It is narrated by 15-year-old Kambili. She and her brother, Ja Ja, are the children of Eugene, a wealthy industrialist living in the town of Enugu. Their father, who can best be described as a religious fanatic, loves them dearly but needs them to conform to his every rigorous standard and strict ambitions for them. Thus, coming second in class is worse than failing completely.
The tale begins soon after there has been a coup in Nigeria. Eugene, who edits a newspaper that refuses to kowtow to anyone, employs an editor, whose critical writing attracts the fatal attention of the new regime’s hit men. The editor’s death only further exacerbates the stress Eugene always imposes on himself, and this in turn causes him to punish his children excessively to the point of causing them serious injury. At times he behaves like a Crusader, defending the faith of his own children by resorting to cruelties, which seem totally incompatible with the parental affection he always professes after inflicting a terrible punishment.
Aunty Ifeoma, Eugene’s widowed sister, lives and teaches at a university in Nsukka. She has three children and is also Christian, but has a far more easy-going approach to religion than her brother. For example, her children are allowed to watch television when the erratic power supply allows, and are also permitted to see and spend time with her and Eugene’s father, Papa-Nnukwu, who lives in Abba.
Kambili’s first visit to Nsukka is brief, but is the first of many for a variety of reasons, which I will not disclose so as to not spoil the book for anyone intending to read it. The more informal, though materially more difficult life in Nsukka provides Kambili with an increasingly more attractive contrast to the rigid, but more affluent life she and her brother lead in Enugu. As the political situation impinges more on Eugene’s life, the environment and atmosphere in his sister’s home in Nsukka becomes increasingly appealing to Kambili, as does the prospect of seeing Father Amadi.
Gently and beautifully, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche describes the downfall of the family both in Enugu and in Nsukka, drawing us gradually towards an extraordinarily tragic ending. In telling her story, she introduces the reader to the customs, foods, and many other aspects of Nigerian life in an organic way that unfolds incredibly naturally, without making her narrative seem like a series of chapters of a geography book (as so many writers tend to do). This might be my favorite approach I’ve experienced for introducing readers to the Giant of Africa, Nigeria, in a way that resonates and reverberates long after the last page is turned.
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