Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Cover of Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and quote: '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.'

Purple Hibiscus is the last book from Adichie’s back list novels I had left to read, and as I expected, I was not disappointed. There is something about Adichie’s writing that keeps me hooked and opens a floodgate of emotions. Adichie writes literary fiction set in Nigeria. She writes about families and relationships and tackles some rather difficult topics in each of her books. Check out my review of Americanah in which she discusses the topics like love and emigration in Nigerian society.

In Purple Hibiscus fifteen year old Kambili’s world revolve around her family, but especially her father who is revered almost like a god by her, her brother Jaja and her mother. There are strict rules in the walled in compound they call their home and the father is who holds absolute power over the inhabitants. The father is the head of the family, but he rules with an iron hand and a religious fanaticism which makes the life if Kambili immensely restricted.

Because of a military coup, Kambili’s father sends her and her brother away to stay with their aunt. The aunt is an university professor and she lives in a small house with meager means with her children. Despite the lack of the fine commodities a life of ample means her father provided her with, her aunt’s house is full of laughter, joy, closeness and happiness. This stark contrast to her own life jolts Kambili out of her ‘slumber’ and makes her realize that money is nothing without happiness and freedom.

What’s amazing about this book is that Kambili loves her father. She is not the rebel of the family, Jaja is. Kambili accepts her father as he is, and does everything as he says, because he must know best, he is her father after all, and an important man too. The whole community reveres him and his work is important. The idea of standing up to him doesn’t even cross her mind until she sees how freely her cousins talk to her aunt and how they are entitled to have their own opinions and are freely debating topics on an everyday basis. She is quiet like a mouse and slowly she finds her voice and comes out of her shell.

“Aunty Ifeoma came the next day, in the evening, when the orange trees started to cast long, wavy shadows across the water fountain in the front yard. Her laughter floated upstairs into the living room, where I sat reading. I had not heard it in two years, but I would know that cackling, hearty sound anywhere. Aunty Ifeoma was as tall as Papa, with a well-proportioned body. She walked fast, like one who knew just where she was going and what she was going to do there. And she spoke the way she walked, as if to get as many words out of her mouth as she could in the shortest time.”

I love how Adichie parallels the oppressive Nigerian regime to the oppressive, religiously fanatic, physically abusive and authoritarian father (yes, he’s that bad), who despite all this is extremely generous to the poor in the community. How can one find fault in a man revered by others? How can one speak out against such a man? Especially in a culture in which women and children come second to men.

“I thought then of catechism classes, about chanting the answer to a question, an answer that was “because he has said it and his word is true.” I could not remember the question.”

Kambili and her brother experience autonomy for the first time in the house of their aunt and their life can never be the same again. Adichie is an amazing writer and she does an exceptional job at immersing us readers in how life in Nigeria is giving us a fully fleshed portray of the political background, race and social unrest of the time without these taking over the story and shifting the focus from the characters.

Narrated by Kambili, it is her coming of age story. It is a thought provoking book and an engaging read filled with universal topics. Purple Hibiscus is Adichie’s debut novel and I would recommend it to everyone.

The violence here is hidden and committed solely by Kambili’s father. In contrast, in Half of a Yellow (one of Adichie’s other novels, also literary fiction set in Nigeria), the violence is external and driven by the larger political scene. Check out my review of it here.

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