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Purple Hibiscus

August 10, 2010

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
published by Algonquin Books, October 30, 2003

Recommended by Ana

Purple Hibiscus takes place in Nigeria as the nation teeters on the brink of a political coup. This instability has been provoked by the government’s harsh repression of free speech; journalists are risking their lives to stand up for freedom. Wrapped within this larger story is the tale narrated by 15-year-old Kambili, who watches her family’s stability unravel after her brother Jaja makes his own bid for freedom.

It happens on Palm Sunday when Jaja doesn’t go to communion. The children have spent their lives in a elegant, carefully ordered home where they’ve lived in terror of their maniacally religious, controlling father. Kambili and and Jaja just returned from a 10-day visit to their aunt and cousins in an academic community. Aunty Ifeoma’s house lacked the material comfort to which they were accustomed, but for the first time the kids experienced a kind of faith and way of life that is filled with joy and laughter. They all participate in household chores, actively contributing to the family’s survival and well-being. Physical punishment is relatively mild. And the children are actively encouraged to disagree and debate the issues of the day. Having experienced a taste of freedom, Kambili and Jaja are changed.

Jaja’s act of defiance, refusing to take communion, triggers a storm in their family.

Everything came tumbling down after Palm Sunday. Howling winds came with an angry rain, uprooting frangipani trees in the front yard. They lay on the lawn, their pink and white flowers grazing the grass, their roots waving lumpy soil in the air. The satellite dish on top of the garage came crashing down, and lounged on the driveway like a visiting alien spaceship. The door of my wardrobe dislodged completely. Sisi broke a full set of Mama’s china. Even the silence that descended on the house was sudden, as though the old silence had broken and left us with sharp pieces. p. 257

Throughout the novel, as in the above quote, the story of Kambili’s family and her difficult journey through adolescence are seamlessly connected to descriptions of the natural world around them. Their experiences are reflected in nature, in a way that is sometimes tumultuous and sometimes wondrous. For example, after spending time at Aunty Ifeoma’s house and becoming aware of herself as a person who has thoughts and feelings separate from her father’s, Kambili has a spiritual awakening. It begins this way.

We stood underneath a huge flame-of-the-forest tree. It was in bloom, its flowers fanning out on wide branches and the ground underneath covered with petals the color of fire. When the young girl was led out, the flame-of-forest swayed and flowers rained down. p. 274

This novel is gorgeous. I loved the sensual beauty of the imagery, the vibrant color, and the vivid descriptions of the flora, fauna, and climate of Nigeria.

The author’s exploration of Kambili’s psyche is so real I felt I was a part of her. I loved watching Kambili become aware of her own body and begin to experience her own emotions and really feel the world around her.

The other characters are also beautifully drawn and complex. Kambili’s father, Eugene, could easily have been a caricature and a person who seems unworthy of the reader’s compassion. He commits horrible acts against his family, and he lives in luxury while surrounded by impoverished families; it’s a somewhat feudal sort of community. Yet he is fully human. He stands up for human rights and pays tuition for many needy children. And at moments, he shows deep love and tenderness for his family. His charity work and loving moments with his family are inextricably entangled with his need to control others. However, I couldn’t entirely loathe him.

Kambili’s passive and emotionally damaged mother is also a complicated character; I couldn’t predict exactly what she would do. I was equally drawn to her brother Jaja, their fiercely intelligent and kind but flawed Aunty Ifeoma, their grandfather, who practices traditional “pagan” beliefs, and Aunty Ifeoma’s brilliant, feisty and outspoken children.

What shines most of all, I think, are the myriad themes woven into Purple Hibuscus. It explores control versus freedom, which we see played out within an individual, in a family, in a community and nation, and throughout the world. It probes the conflict between traditional tribal beliefs and “white man’s religion” in post-colonial Africa. It explores the cruel marriage between religion and repression, and it also gives us glimpses of what genuine faith, rooted in personal freedom, can be. It also looks at the role nature plays in people’s everyday lives and a young girl’s coming of age.

While it is heart-wrenching, this is ultimately a hopeful story illuminated by love, personal awakening, and the persistence of human desire for freedom. I highly recommend it, especially for readers who enjoy contemporary literary fiction and are interested in African cultures.

Read More Reviews: S. Krishna’s Books; One More Chapter; A Striped Armchair; Book Addiction; A Book Blog. Period.; Things Mean a Lot


13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 12:42 am

    How does this one compare to Half a Yellow Sun?

    • August 10, 2010 12:59 am

      They were very different novels, although they both looked at Nigeria’s culture and political history and shared some common themes. However, I liked them both equally. I think I liked *Purple Hibiscus* just a bit better.

      To other commenters who’ve read both these novels, what do you think? How do they compare?

  2. August 10, 2010 4:07 am

    I have to read this and also the other one. Thank you for such a glowing review, I will definitely pick it up soon.

  3. August 10, 2010 7:19 am

    I’m so glad you loved it! You’re right, it’s such an incredibly rich novel. It deals with so many complex themes, and it does it so well. As for my favourite, I really love them both – I might like Half of a Yellow Sun a bit more, but it might also just be that I read it more recently.

    • August 10, 2010 1:30 pm

      Thanks for recommending these book to me, Ana, with your beautiful reviews. This author is so masterful at dealing with many layers of themes.

  4. August 10, 2010 7:00 pm

    Oohh I have this on my tbr pile at some so I’m really excited to read it! Great review! Also, I’m interested to see that you liked it a little bit more than Half of a Yellow Sun which I have with me to read on my trip. Have you read her collection of short stories?

    • August 10, 2010 7:10 pm

      I have not read her short stories yet. Have you read them? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on how they compare to the novels.

  5. August 10, 2010 9:33 pm

    I want to read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. Glad you rated both highly!

  6. August 10, 2010 9:38 pm

    I have had this one out from the library for way too long–I need to get to it ASAP. This is one author I really want to read.

  7. August 10, 2010 10:26 pm

    Lovely review. I’ve had this book on my list for ages – I think I’d better get on and read it.

  8. August 16, 2010 11:01 pm

    I am so glad to read this review and love how you describe the book! One for me to watch for!

  9. She permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:21 am

    Ah, yes! This is a fantastic book, isn’t it? The father was such a hard character to read– so well written. I am still waiting to read Half of a Yellow Sun as I heard it’s even better than Purple Hibiscus.

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