Recently, I decided that it was finally time for me to put my money where my mouth is with my love and admiration of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and actually read another one of her novels. I have literally nothing of consequence to add to any discussion of her work, because all I can do is loudly affirm that she is brilliant and that I love everything she writes.
Purple Hibiscus is narrated by Kambili, a fifteen-year-old girl living in a repressive, abusive household. To the outside world, her father is a pillar of the community, a deeply devout man who stands up to what is wrong in society. But behind closed doors, it’s a very different story. He beats his wife and sacrifices the happiness of his children to his maniacal religious belief. Kambili and her brother Jaja live in a constant state of terror, from which they are finally freed by a stay at their Aunty Ifeoma’s flat, where they begin to understand that the family they have known is not the only possibility.
This is in no small part a classic coming of age story. Kambili is timid and nervous when we meet her, and we gradually see her bloom as she escapes from her father’s influence and begins to form friendships with her cousins and even develop a tentative crush on a young priest (this crush is maybe my favourite thing about the novel, it’s wonderfully done). It’s a heartwarming look at the good it does young people to be truly loved and valued, alongside being treated as equals – both in that they are respected but also in that they are expected to pull their weight alongside everyone else at their Aunty’s home. The coming of age aspect of the novel means that it’s a perfect recommendation for teenagers who are just starting to read adult fiction, and I’ve already been recommending it to customers.
While it does have that heartwarming look at growing up, it is also filled with the oppressive presence of an abuser. Kambili’s every action is influenced by what her father would think, what he will do if he finds out, fear of his responses, even when she is in a different city. Every time she manages to take a step forward, he pulls her back. You can feel this uncomfortable, constant sensation through the entire boo, even though the way he controls her is not necessarily something she is aware of. Adichie suffuses the entire boo with his looming presence, so that the reader also begins to feel stifled by it.
While this would be a gripping story were it just to look at one family’s story, Adichie doesn’t leave it there. She uses the moving stories of these individuals to tell a wider story about post-colonial Nigeria. During the course of the novel, there is a military coup, which Kambili’s father uses the newspaper he owns to criticise, with horrific results for his employees. Ifeoma is a university lecturer while students are rioting and attacking faculty houses. The part which really hit home for me was the way that the country has been brutalised by colonialism, as represented through Kambili’s father, whose violence and abuse stem from his Catholicism, from a religion brought to him by white men.
This is a glorious novel, simultaneously shocking, brutal, heartwarming and moving. I’m literally the last person to this party, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is incredible, and you should read her.