Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus

adichie.jpg Like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, with whom she will inevitably be compared, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie is a Nigerian writer whose fiction grapples with the political turmoil of her country. But while Adichie and Soyinka use satire to deal with these issues, Adichie chooses to highlight them through the subtle transformations that a small family undergoes during and after a military coup.

Purple Hibiscus tells the story of Kambili, a studious and dutiful teenager, and her older brother Jaja, a protective and bright young man, as they struggle under their father Eugene’s fanatical rule. Eugene is a very successful businessman and something of a local hero. He gives money to his church, helps people from his village, and, through the newspaper that he publishes, tries to uphold freedom of the press. He is “a man of integrity, the bravest man I know,” according to the newspaper editor he helps free.

But Eugene is also a controlling man, watching over every detail of his family’s life. His children must have free time penciled in on their schedules. He forbids them to speak Igbo outside the home. “We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English.” In addition, Eugene is a fundamentalist Christian who repudiates his elderly father because he still keeps traditionalist icons at home, beats his wife because she says she is too tired to visit the priest after mass, and slaps his daughter for breaking the Eucharistic fast (this, despite the fact that it was for medical reasons.) Eugene is precise in his religious requirements, brutal in his punishments.

Kambili and Jaja’s world is turned on its ear when they are unexpectedly allowed to stay for a few days with their Aunt Ifeoma, a lecturer, in the university town of Nsukka. Unlike her brother, Ifeoma allows her children to speak at the table, play music, watch television, agree and disagree with her. Being transplanted from a world in which life centers on religion to one in which freedom is in focus affects both Kambili and Jaja. The purple hibiscus of the title refers to an experimental variety of hibiscus “rare, fragrant with the 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.” The themes of faith and freedom run steadily throughout the book, and Aunty Ifeoma summarizes hers and Eugene’s positions well: “Eugene has to stop doing God’s job. God is big enough to do his own job.” As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that, upon their return home, Kambili and Jaja are different people.

From its opening line (“Things began to fall apart,” possibly a nod to Achebe), to its harrowing end, Purple Hibiscus gives us characters we care deeply about. At times, some of them turn into mouthpieces, and the protagonist’s quietness borders on passiveness. Yet these minor faults are more than made up for by Adichie’s subtle handling of the characters’ emotions. The writing is fluid, even lyrical, always sensuous.

Adichie has already made her mark as a short-story writer with haunting, deftly told pieces, like “Half of a Yellow Sun” or “The American Embassy,” the latter an O. Henry award winner. With Purple Hibiscus, she announces herself as a gifted novelist as well.


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