‘Purple Hibiscus’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, is one I have been meaning to read ever since I was completely blown away by her Orange Prize Winning ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’. That book really took me by surprise, I knew nothing of Biafra and the war there, I knew nothing of the author and the book (which has since become a favourite and was the title I gave away for World Book Night) before it became a choice for a book group I was in. I couldn’t put it down; it was an amazing reading experience. So funny then that it was a book group that made me finally pick up ‘Purple Hibiscus’.
With her debut novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes us into the heart of a family in Nigeria not long after its colonisation, though this not the focus that the book takes, though it’s always bubbling away in the background. Instead Adichie tells us a story of religion as we follow Kambili a fifteen year old girl whose father is an extremist catholic. As the book opens Kambili witnesses her brother Jaja’s defiance of her father as he refuses to take communion in church, something utterly unthinkable, enraging her father and changing the dynamics of the house hold forever.
I did think after the first initial sixteen pages that make part one of the book ‘where is the story here, we’ve got the climax of it all at the beginning haven’t we?’ Well Adichie then proceeded to remind me that to every momentous moment there is a something that triggers it off. In the case of ‘Purple Hibiscus’ Adichie hints in the opening pages that things are pretty fragile for Kambili, Jaja, and their mother, what she does in part two is take us to how things have gotten to that point. For we all know that there is a lead up to every momentous moment. In this case it is their father’s sister Aunty Ifeoma.
The household that Kambili grows up in is, for the reader, an oppressive and claustrophobic one, dominated by a father so obsessed with god and the workings of the devil that he becomes abusive at any turn. Even small things like Kambili coming second in her class leads to some form of abuse based punishment, not sexual but often painful and humiliating. For Kambili this is simply life, its as normal as the schedule, which allows for a few toilet breaks, that her daily life must follow that is until she and Jaja go and stay in her Aunties house. Only this house, whilst with a catholic belief, is one of encouragement, progression and freedom. While they may be poor compared to Kambili’s fathers mass of wealth, they are richer in many other ways. Once Kambili and Jaja have their minds opened and allowed to roam free they begin to question things and so starts unravellings of powers and beliefs.
“I lay in bed after Mama left and let my mind rake through the past, through the years when Jaja and Mama and I spoke more with our spirits than with our lips. Until Nsukka. Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.
But my memories did not start at Nsukka. They started before, when all the hibiscuses in our front yard were a startling red.”
What I found startling, and probably the most effective part of Adichie’s writing and aspect of the book which hit me the hardest, was Kambili’s acceptance of the situation at home. Yet the more I thought about it the more I realised of course she would be, she had been groomed that her fathers form of godliness and the punishment that comes if you don’t come up to those standards are the norm.
“We did that often, asking each other questions whose answers we already knew. Perhaps it was so that we would not ask the other questions, the ones whose answers we did not want to know.”
It also proves an effective device by Adichie, the initial distance she places between the reactions of Kambili and the reaction of a reader gives a reader the room to put there own emotions, shock and horror in there, while this young girl just goes on accepting it. This rather reminded me of the way Margaret Atwood writes ‘Cat’s Eye’ actually, getting the reader to put their emotion into a void purposefully left. Will Kambili go on accepting her fathers ways for good, well of course you will have to find out, you will also have to read on to see that the climatic event you think the book will end with doesn’t at all.
‘Purple Hibiscus’ isn’t a perfect book, it could have either done with being a little shorter and some of the small tangent tales cutting out, or having those tales developed further and been much longer and more epic, the latter I think I would have loved as Adichie is immensely readable. In fact how she fitted all of this and its themes into just over 300 pages is impressive. It is a book that makes you think and one that will leave its narrator with you for some time after. 8.5/10
This is a book I have had in Mount TBR for ages.
It was hard for me not to compare this book to ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ though I did try my hardest. I was worried I had been harder on it slightly because of my subconscious comparisons. This is where reading it for a book group was great because there were other readers who had read them in the same order as me and felt the same, and people for who ‘Purple Hibiscus’ was their first Adichie novel. The latter also felt the same, everyone seemed to like it a lot, yet they sort of wanted either less or more which I found really interesting. It proved a great book for discussion. What are your thoughts have you read ‘Purple Hibiscus’ or ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’? Who has read her short stories?