May contain spoilers…..
Author : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Genre: Literary Fiction
Date of Publication: 2004
Number of Pages: 307
My Rating : 5 out of 5
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award (Best Debut Fiction Category) in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in 2005 for Purple Hibiscus. Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s debut novel, published in 2004. I read it after reading Americanah which resonated with me because of all the stories I had heard about the lives of immigrants in the US.
Purple Hibiscus is a heartbreaking story about fifteen year old Kambili and her family. Kambili’s father, Eugene, is a wealthy Nigerian businessman. He is also a religious fanatic who does not allow any dissent in his family. Everything has to be done his way. He exercises tight control over their lives, planning and intricately scheduling every minute including family time, reading time, eating time and prayer time. There are prayers before and after meals, with a prayer before meals taking twenty minutes. Any dissent is met with horrific acts of violence.
Eugene is fastidious about rituals and prayers but fails in kindness and compassion, yet he is blind to his many faults. Typically, he blames others for his wrongdoing and makes them go for confession when they have done nothing wrong.
There are a lot of lessons to be glimpsed from the book. Chimamanda shows us how violence begets violence. Eugene was exposed to violence for behavior that was deemed ‘sinful’ by a priest he lived with while in school and metes out similar punishment to his family.
Whilst this is no excuse, it helps us get a better understanding of his character. His family lives in silence and fear. This has greatly affected Kambili who rarely talks. When she does it is in a voice that is barely audible. Their mother, Beatrice, tries to prevent the violence by deflecting Eugene’s attention when she sees his temper rising, though she rarely succeeds.
When Kambili and her brother, Jaja, visit their Aunt Ifeoma at the University campus in Nsukka where she works and lives with her family, they are surprised at how different life in her house is. Though Ifeoma’s family lacks the abundant resources that Kambili’s family has, they enjoy cheerful banter during meal times.
Ifeoma’s house is full of music and laughter, which is alien to Kambili and Jaja. To their surprise, their aunt tells them that there is no need to follow their father’s strict schedule while they are at her house.
At Nsukka, Kambili meets Father Amadi, a young catholic priest whose amiable behaviour is unlike anything her father would approve of. Father Amadi quickly notices that Kambili is different and pays her special attention. Kambili develops a crush on him. Though we do not see any inappropriate behaviour on Father Amadi’s part, he manages to draw Kambili out of her shell. She is able to open up and relax due to the way he treats her. Eventually she falls in love with him, even though she knows nothing can come out of this relationship (sigh………).
Another theme that is explored in this book is how the wealthy are allowed to get away with ghastly behavior. Eugene is extremely generous. He is the main benefactor of his church. This gives him the confidence to stand in judgment of other worshippers, regarding those who missed communion on two consecutive Sundays as ‘having committed mortal sin’.
Villagers flock to his rural home when he goes there and he gladly dishes out money. He is a highly regarded member of society, even though he permits his children only fifteen minutes to visit his own father whom he regards as a ‘heathen’.
He refuses to have anything to do with his father. When they fail to report that they spent time with their grandfather at Aunt Ifeoma’s house, Kambili and Jaja are punished for knowingly being in the same house with a heathen. This in spite of the fact that their grandfather is only brought to Nsukka due to his deteriorating health.
Eugene is not even moved when his father dies, his only comment is that a priest should have been called to pray for him and convert him. This does not stop him from sending a lot of money for the funeral, though he doesn’t bother attending it.
Neither the villagers nor Father Benedict are shown as being at all concerned about the way he treats his family, though it must be clearly evident that something is off as others easily pick up on this. The only person who dares defy him is his sister, Ifeoma, who goes as far as to refuse his financial assistance because he tries to control her life in exchange for his support.
Another theme that Chimamanda brings out is how society tends to turn a blind eye to things that make us uncomfortable. Nobody asks Kambili how she got hurt when she lands in hospital after her father repeatedly kicks her, not even Father Eugene or the doctor. The only person who dares broach the subject is her cousin, Amaka, who mentions it in a way that makes it obvious that she is already aware of what happened.
How long can people really survive such treatment? Kambili’s mother, Beatrice, seems weak and helpless, as victims of domestic abuse often appear to be. She tries to protect her children but seems trapped by circumstances. She goes back to her abusive husband even after Ifeoma begs her not to go.
Ifeoma often tries to talk some sense into her brother, although ultimately, she concludes that he is broken, perhaps beyond redemption. Jaja is wracked with guilt because of his inability to protect his mother. He is eventually able to take a stance against his father, and we see his character begin to develop. Unfortunately, the cycle of violence is doomed to continue as victims of violence often retaliate.
All in all, this book was a poignant look at religious fanaticism and domestic violence. It is heartbreaking and distressing. It made me mad and frustrated. I wished I could enter into the book and shake some sense into some of the characters.
I found the story well-paced and superbly written. The characters are well developed and easy to understand, even those that I did not like – Eugene and Father Benedict. I felt sorry for Kambili, celebrated Jaja’s growth into manhood, and empathized with Beatrice. I understood Ifeoma’s anger and frustration with her brother and even Amaka’s attempt at rationalizing her uncle’s behaviour.
The story is told against the background of political instability and a military coup in Nigeria, which provides some useful information on what is going on in the characters’ lives.
I love how Chimamanda uses the blooming of the newly planted and rare purple hibiscus to depict a new beginning for the family and how the characters are at last able to move on. The story is told from Kambili’s point of view and her emotional turmoil is brought out beautifully.
I appreciated the way Chimamanda contrasts religion as depicted by Ifeoma’s family and Father Amadi, as opposed to Eugene and Father Benedict. The same religion expressed very differently. We see how Kambili feels isolated from her religion because of her father’s fanaticism, whereas her cousins embrace their religion and have a friendly and casual relationship with their priest, free from judgment.
Even though a lot of violence is depicted, and I could clearly see how inhumane and traumatic this is for the characters, I did not find it at all graphic.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even when it made me sad, and rate it 5 out of 5. I recommend it to lovers of African literature.