The Story
Kambili is a fifteen year-old Nigerian girl. Her wealthy father Eugene owns a newspaper and several factories, and though he is well respected by the community and generous to outsiders (donating money, gifts and assistance to those in need), he is a despot at home. Kambili’s family live in a compound surrounded by high walls topped by electrified cables, she and her brother Jaja are driven to school each day by the chauffeur. Music, dancing, having fun are forbidden. Friendship with other children is discouraged. Instead, they must follow Eugene’s schedule: so many hours for study, so many for prayer, etc.

Kambili’s mother, a kindly woman, oppressed and terrified by her husband, who beats her frequently for imagined misdemeanours, she has miscarried several times. When the children fail to come first at school, if they miss communion, out comes the leather belt – and worse.

Eugene has repudiated his own father, Papa-Nnukwu, for refusing to convert to Catholicism, and turned his grandchildren against him, allowing them only fifteen minutes a year with him at Christmas.

But things change when a coup is staged and the military takes over. Eugene’s editor is threatened for criticising the government; daily life becomes chaotic and uncertain, so Eugene sends his children to stay with his sister Ifeoma, a university teacher.

Here, Kambili and Jaja meet their cousins, learn what it means to be free, to speak their thoughts, to laugh and argue; they form a strong bond with their grandfather and discover new ways of behaving; they also become friends with a young priest who is unlike any they’ve ever known. This new knowledge and awareness will challenge their values (learned at great psychological and emotional cost).and change their lives forever.

How It’s Done
Setting: Nigeria, contemporary (Adichie drew on her experience of having lived under military juntas between 1985-1998).

The story is recounted from Kambili’s viewpoint in the first person, and our perception of events is therefore coloured by her interpretation. From the start we can see that the young girl is terrorised, her every move and emotion coloured by fear of her father’s disapproval. Discussions and laughter have no place in this household – take the following excerpt, written in Adichie’s simple but evocative prose:

Our steps on the stairs were as measured and as silent as our Sundays: the silence of waiting until Papa was done with his siesta so we could have lunch; the silence of reflection time, when Papa gave us a scripture passage or a book by one of the early church fathers to read and meditate on; the silence of evening rosary; the silence of driving to the church for benediction afterward. Even our family time on Sundays was quiet, without chess games or newspaper discussions, more in tune with the Day of Rest.

The result of this enforced silence means that Kambili finds it difficult to communicate easily with others; when she arrives at her Aunt’s home, she is amazed at the easy interaction and laughter between her relatives and her cousins think she is weird, because she says so little and speaks in a low voice.

Father Amadi, the young priest who coaches the local boys in football, wears jeans and shorts, has progressive ideas about church worship, and becomes very fond of Kambili. Through him she starts view religion differently, realising that it can have a human face; it can even incorporate singing (which the Nigerians love to do, and which Kambili’s father deplores).

Conflicts and contrasts exist at several levels: the notion of oppression versus freedom; public profile versus private tyrant; cruelty versus paternal love in the name of religion; fear and the desire to please; Western versus African culture and language; democracy versus dictatorship, and so on.

Adichie makes frequent use of Igbo language to strengthen her point about Nigerian roots and culture, peppering her narrative with various words and phrases which add depth and authenticity to the story; on the one hand Eugene speaks English as a way of being ‘superior’, but when he is angry with his children he addresses them in Igbo, though he forbids them to use it themselves.

But the chief focus is on Kambili’s growing awareness of who she is and what she wants to be, and how far she is prepared to go for what she believes in.

The title Purple Hibiscus refers to the flowers which grow in Aunty Ifeoma’s small garden and which symbolise freedom. Kambili’s garden at home has only red hibiscus flowers which propagate profusely and if red symbolises oppression (as well as the blood spilt during the miscarriages), then the clandestine introduction of purple hibiscus cuttings into the garden reflects a gradual breaking down of Eugene’s power.

Although the first chapter is rather slow, the undercurrents within the family and the sinister tone are evident. These become more specific as the story progresses, yet Adichie carefully avoids spelling things out for the reader, as seen in the following example:

I was in my room after lunch, reading James chapter five because I would talk about the biblical roots of the anointing of the sick during family time, when I heard the sounds. Swift, heavy thuds on my parents’ hand-carved bedroom door. I imagined the door had gotten stuck and Papa was trying to open it. If I imagined it hard enough, then it would be true. I sat down, closed my eyes, and started to count. Counting made it seem not that long, made it seem not that bad. Sometimes it was over before I even got to twenty. I was at nineteen when the sounds stopped.

The interesting thing is that once Eugene has vented his spleen on whichever family member has incurred his wrath, he weeps, then tends to their injuries, or takes them to hospital. But when he cries, it is not for what he has done, but for their ‘sins’. Kambili in a strange, almost masochistic way, still desires her father’s approval and love, despite his violence. Thus ambivalence prevails because nothing is clear cut, with emotions and characters white or black.

While the book focuses very much on relationships and the evolving character of Kambili, it is by no means slow; in fact, once I got to the part where she begins to discover the joys of laughter and normal human interaction, I found it hard to put down, knowing that a showdown was looming. Having said that, I was quite unprepared for the ending although the author leaves subtle signs for the observant reader!

This new and exciting author, only 27, shows enormous talent in Purple Hibiscus which was short-listed for the Orange Prize (2004) and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The novel takes the reader into an unfamiliar yet fascinating world, which nevertheless incorporates some of the more negative aspects of our own culture.

Readers seeking to broaden their sphere of knowledge and expand their comfort zone should give this one a try.

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