I love novels set in Africa...almost any part of Africa. I loved Ben Okri's THE FAMISHED ROAD, the "Mma Ramotswe" detective novels of Alexander McCall Smith, and the novels of Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah, so I was very eager to read PURPLE HIBISCUS, a debut novel by twenty-five year old Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I am happy to say I wasn't disappointed.
PURPLE HIBISCUS is the story of a sister and brother, Kambili and Jaja, who, outwardly, seem to have the "perfect life" but who, inwardly, are starving...not physically, but emotionally and spiritually. The family at the center of PURPLE HIBISCUS is a strongly patriarchal family, i.e., it is definitely ruled by the father and the father is nothing if not tyrannical and religiously fanatic. Like many tyrants, Eugene, or "Omelora," as this father is known, is well thought of throughout his village and the surrounding area and is committed to improving both the political and religious scene as well as improving life for the villagers. He's charming and he's warm...but only outside of his own home. Home, for Kambili, Jaja and their mother, Beatrice, is a place of dark secrets, secrets they would never dream of revealing to the "outside world" for a variety of reasons.
Kambili and Jaja do get to escape the joylessness of their own home when they visit their much poorer but happier aunt, Ifeoma, and her children. Even though Ifeoma has trouble just finding enough food to put on the table for her own family, Kambili and Jaja are always welcome and it is there that they discover that life contains joy as well as sorrow. Gradually, Kambili and Jaja learn to relate to others, including their own grandfather, whom they have been forbidden to see because his principles do not conform to those of his son.
I found some of the characters in PURPLE HIBISCUS to be rather clichéd, especially Beatrice. This long suffering, battered wife was just a little too "stock" for me. And Ifeoma and her family were the very expression of "money can't buy happiness." No, it can't, but poverty ensures misery and Ifeoma and her family just weren't miserable enough to be realistic.
Kambili and her father were extremely complex characters, though, and they are the characters that make PURPLE HIBISCUS both interesting and engrossing. "Omelora" is a tyrant, but he is a tyrant who can't help himself, who is at odds with himself, who loves his family as much as he sometimes deplores them and who chastises himself for the pain he knows he inflicts on them. He is also a man who, though he sets inflexible rules and impossibly high standards for others, also sets them for himself. He's a man we find it impossible to like but also to completely dislike.
Kambili is also quite complex. While yearning for a life of her own, Kambili finds that her identity and her world are tied to her father and her father's opinion of her. She lives for his love and when he withdraws it, she withers. I don't know how anyone could fail to love this shy and charming girl. If you do, you must have an extremely hard heart.
Kambili's collapsing family serves as a metaphor for the collapsing government of Nigeria and this makes the book doubly sad and poignant. Ifeoma, especially, must make some very difficult choices, but Kambili will be called upon to make choices of her own as well.
Even though I've never been to Nigeria, I could identify and empathize with Kambili, to the author's great credit. And, while reading PURPLE HIBISCUS, I really felt as though I were in Nigeria. The author paints a very vivid scene of her native country, its government and its family life.
PURPLE HIBISCUS is a lovely coming of age novel and a lovely debut. I hope to read more from this young author and I hope she continues to set her novels in Africa. To me, that is one of the things that made it special. That, and the lovely and complex character of Kambili. I would give this novel four and one-half stars and recommend it without hesitation.