on March 27, 2004
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.
The 1990s were turbulent times in Nigeria with one political coup following another; when the government executed writer and journalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa who spoke out about the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta. In "Purple Hibiscus," Eugene Achike is a wealthy factory owner who publishes “The Standard,” a newspaper that speaks out about the anti-democratic practices of the government. That being said, “Purple Hibiscus” examines the dynamics of the Achike family and not the political events of the time. Eugene’s 15-year-old daughter, Kambili, narrates a life so sheltered that she perceives nothing unusual about her devoutly Catholic father rages when her brother Jaja leaves the dinner table without permission. Nor does she question the slaps he gives her when she scores second in the class on her report card; or the regular beatings he inflicts on her mother. Her perception of her father is more like that of the community that sees him as a generous benefactor to the church, kind to the needy and willing the stand up for the rights of the disenfranchised.
Kambili’s life is changed when are her Aunt Ifeoma invites her and her brother to visit her home during a semester break. There, she experiences freedom for the first time after having her every minute of her life timetabled by her father. With the cousins she hardly knows, she listens to contemporary music for the first time, develops a crush for the local priest and lives with her grandfather who her father has allowed her only 15 minutes to visit his heathen premises.
Despite a backdrop of social unrest, “Purple Hibiscus” is a story where family trumps politics in the life of its characters.
Knopf Canada|March 26, 2013|Trade Paperback|ISBN: 978-0-345-80752-6
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.
Fifteen-year-old Kambili's home life began to fall apart when her older brother, seventeen-year-old, Jaja, didn't attend communion at church. Their father, Eugene was a devoutly religious man. He was so enraged about his son's dismissal of communion that he threw his heavy missal across the room and smashed the figurines on the table. Kambili's father was always first to receive communion and the only one of the parishioners to kneel at the altar.
Father Benedict had been the priest at their church for seven years now but because he was white, the congregation still referred to him as "our new priest." He often held up Kambili's father, Eugene as an example to other congregants due to his dedication and for speaking out for freedom. Other Sundays, Father Benedict spoke about, Eugene making the largest donations to St. Vincent de Paul and other organizations, or for paying for the cartons of communion wine and for paying for the new ovens the sisters used to bake the host. Eugene was dedicated and very rich.
Eugene questioned Jaja as to why he missed communion and Jaja said: "The wafer gives me bad breath...and the Priest keeps touching my mouth and it nauseates me." Eugene was enraged and picked up the missal and flung it across the room toward Jaja.
Eugene owned a factory that made chocolate wafers, banana wafers, various drinks and other food stuffs and was very successful. At lunch that afternoon, the family was taste-testing a new drink that tasted like cashews. Kambili's mother, Beatrice thought it tasted like wine. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and commented except Jaja. This made Kambili nervous as she wanted him to say something nice as their father had not yet punished him for missing communion. She was hoping a positive comment from him might lighten the atmosphere and make her father forget.
Beatrice announces to Kambili that she is pregnant and that the baby would be due in October. Kambili told Jaja and he told Kambili that the two of them would look after the baby and protect it. Kambili knew he meant protect the baby from their father, a hugely strict and abusive man who was easily angered and expected perfection from everyone in all that they did and encouraged order in everything.
During family time the following day, it was announced on the radio that a coup had happened. Eugene immediately left the room to call his friend, Ade Coker. He said that "coups begat coups" then told the kids about the bloody coups of the sixties, which ended up in civil war just after he left Nigeria to study in England. He said that a coup always began a vicious cycle. Eugene believed that Nigeria didn't need soldiers but a "renewed democracy."
Eugene also owned and operated a newspaper and Ade Coker was his editor. Ade had been arrested and tortured for some of his opinions he wrote in the paper. After a week, Eugene was finally able to get him out of jail. Eugene then announced to the family that beginning immediately they were going to publish underground as it was no longer safe for his staff.
A few days before Christmas, the family packed up their three cars and headed for their holiday home in Abba town. The people of the community there adored, Eugene and called him "omelora" which meant: "The One Who Does for the Community." During their vacation, Eugene's family fed the entire community and sent all the leftovers home with them as well.
For the first time in their lives, Kambili and Jaja are going away for five whole days to stay with their Aunty Ifeoma, Eugene's sister and her children. Kambili and Jaja are excited as they won't have to listen to their strict and religious father or listen to his heavy footsteps on the stairs for almost a week!
When the children returned from Aunty Ifeoma's, Eugene literally tortured them because he learned that his own father had been there as well, and Eugene considered him a heathen. He felt Kambili and Jaja had lied to him because they didn't tell him on the phone that their grandfather was there.
Although, Eugene is a religious man and very kind with his money, he is a cruel, ogre as far as I'm concerned. His cruelty toward Kambili and Jaja and Beatrice is unforgivable.
The ending totally shocked me but as sadistic as it sounds, it made me a tad happy. What am I talking about? Well, you'll have to read this wonderful story to find out.
There is so much more to this story, I couldn't put it down. Purple Hibiscus definitely gets a thumbs up from me!
on May 13, 2004
Adichie's "Purple Hibiscus" will join other notable first novels like "Things Fall Apart" in the canon of great African literature. It is a very good story of the stuggles within one Nigerian family, with a domineering father, a sad, submissive mother, a defiant brother, and a daughter who is torn between following her aunt or her father. I did like the aunt's perspective, but on the other hand, I don't like the insinoution that pagans are spiritually purer than Christians. I also thought that the book excused the mother a little too much for how she finally dealt the family problem.