Turning Pages Reads: PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Privileged and perfect is how life could be described for fifteen-year-old Kambili and her brother, Jaja. In Nigeria, where so many deal with fuel shortages, power outages, strikes at hospitals and universities and scarce, or uninspiringly plain foods, Kambili has nice clothes, meat almost every day, her own room with a nice bed, and the stern and despotic will of her Father dominating her every breath. Infected with a self-hatred which enacts itself in extreme religiosity in respect to the Catholicism that he’s embraced, Kambili’s father demands impossible obedience to a law of rigid social and religious perfection which leaves the family emotionally, psychically — and very often physically — scarred. Their prayers at meals are twenty-minute long exercises in piety, church is never missed, including the visit to the priest after; confession is constant, and their father even parcels out the time they’re allowed to visit his father, Papa-Nnukwu, whom he tells his children is a hell-bound pagan (though his sister simply explains the man’s adherence to his own faith as being a traditionalist). To settle the concerns of the village fathers, the children get fifteen minutes in their grandfather’s presence and are urged to eat or drink nothing, though the man clearly is nearing the end of his life, lives in deep poverty, and longs to know his grandchildren and share time and stories and meals with them.

It is only through their aunt’s guile that the children are taken from their home to visit their father’s sister. Their father allows his sister, Auntie Ifeoma to take his children to spend a few days in her home in Nsukka. Promised a pilgrimage to a place where the Virgin Mother has appeared, the children are instead gifted with a time of relaxation – books and television, no threats, no shouting, no not measuring up to an impossible ruler. They hear music from the heart, singing at prayers, laughter, jokes, free discussion, and games. And Kambili – numb and awkward at first – observes dully her brother Jaja turning like a sunflower to the warmth of this free home, and turning into someone she doesn’t know. Cautious and wary, Kambili’s every thought remains of her father, obsessed with keeping his rules, even when out from under his eye, but she watches as her brother simply decides… “no. No more.” Fearfully, Kambili waits for the world to end. It doesn’t — and then she meets Father Amadi, a young and attractive chaplain of the University of Nsukka where Auntie Ifeoma works. Casually dressed, playing soccer, with a kind word for everyone, he’s one of the only Igbo priests Kambili has ever met – and even his voice obsesses her. Filled with hints of a whole new world, that of affection and infatuation, Kambili, finally, begins to imagine a world away from what she’s always known. But, every vacation ends, and for every little sin, there is to be a painful and terrifying reckoning. Their father remains ominously in the background, even as the hideous stress of running a free press begins to have its fatal effects during the despotic Nigerian political regime. Her family cannot remain as it is — not when Jaja is getting older every day, and pushing back against their father. But, is courage in this circumstance, what is endurance? Is it standing in the face of oppression, as their father does against the political forces in their nation? Or is it, as Auntie Ifeoma is doing, preparing to emigrate to America, walking away?

Observations: This book, first published in 2003, has been reprinted multiple times, and was nominated for many awards. Obviously tightly written and concisely plotted, Adichie’s characterization is clear and true, contrasting individual triumphs and failures against the backdrop of Nigeria’s failures and eventual turn toward change. Despite its having a fifteen-year-old narrator, many teens read this novel as part of World Literature, not as ordinary genre fiction. What separates the two is mostly topical, but also a lyricism of writing that isn’t often as apparent in other fiction forms. (This is not to say that it’s nonexistent; it’s just that this book has history and politics entangled with the narrative, which changes it and its concerns.)

Oppression is thematic in this novel. Myriad things loom over the family within the first third of the book. The heat is looms oppressively. The political climate holds the threat of oppression. The religion is certainly all-pervasive and oppressive, and then there’s the father’s chronic disappointment looming, and always ready to break over their defenseless heads. Though Kambili describes things with a small-voiced detachment – small voices, because she has never had speaking-up behavior modeled at home; small-voiced, because she believes in her father’s view of her, that she is sinful, stained, and spoiled — one nevertheless gets the sense of the absolute numb horror taking place around them. As Kambili and her brother scrub their mother’s blood from the floor, after one of their father’s “corrections” of the nearly silent woman’s sinful behavior, the reader gets the sense of being seen in a funhouse mirror; much smaller than previously believed… see-through, perhaps… and helpless. But, no one – not the country, or the climate, nor the family – is beyond help and change in this novel. Adichie pulls the narrative inexorably and smoothly toward the small explosions which culminate in the release – and then the aftershock – of the inevitable tragedy.

Conclusion: Though in some ways grimly tragic, this is also a beautifully written novel which introduces readers unfamiliar with Nigeria to a small part of it — without that being the point of the novel. As a matter of fact, with no glossary or “notes” on how to make sense of the culture, except through savoring the narrator’s words, it’s not about the culture at all, except through its people — and the characterizations are worth their weight in gold. No one is single-dimensional, every quick conclusion the reader makes they have to take out again and scrutinize as they peer at the pieces of what makes a person who they are, and how they become. Even the monstrous father isn’t a monster so much as someone whose self-worth is so afflicted by not being Western and white that he’s absorbed the cruelty of the West’s disdain for he and his people, and taken their cruel white Catholic god to heart. What else can he do, but try and erase Nigeria’s stain from his own family? And yet, he obviously loves his people and supports so, so many of them – which is one of the reasons Kambili is so proud of him, even as he batters away all that she could love about him… a complex and multilayered book, even in its painful tragedy, it leaves the reader with a hair-thin sprout of hopefulness.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the library. You can find PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Adichie at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

About the author

tanita s. davis is a writer and avid reader who prefers books to most things in the world, including people. That's ...pretty much it, she's very boring and she can't even tell jokes. She is, however, the author of nine books, including Serena Says, Partly Cloudy, Go Figure, Henri Weldon, and the Coretta Scott King honored Mare's War. Look for her new MG, The Science of Friendship in 1/2024 from Katherine Tegen Books.

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