I finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus today, and I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind. I wanted to write about it because the books that I write about manage to stay fresher in my mind than the ones I don’t. It’s my book group’s pick for this month – our meeting is Sunday. I really hope that my fellow members read it because I want to talk about it! It’s one of those books that grew on me as I read it, and by the end, I didn’t want to put it down.
This was Adichie’s first novel, but I found it to be as captivating as the only other one of hers I’ve read thus far, the epic Americanah. It’s a far more quiet novel, though; it sneaked up on me with an emotional heft that took my breath away. A coming of age story set in modern Nigeria, it follows fifteen year-old Kambili and her family: her older brother Jaja, her mother and father, and her father’s sister Ifeoma and her family.
Kambili’s father is wealthy, publishing a progressive newspaper and owning factories, and his children lack for nothing physically. However, their house is a quiet one, where every day has a schedule and no one speaks out of turn. Laughter is nonexistent, and the household is strictly religious (Catholic.) Kambili loves her father, wants to make him proud with her grades at school, but she also fears him. As the novel progresses we get more of a picture of what’s going on inside the house – it becomes obvious that the father is physically abusive not only to their mother but also to Kambili and Jaja. One day a girl at school asks Kambili why she always runs to get into the car her father sends to pick her up instead of walking and chatting with the other girls.
“I just like running,” I said, and wondered if I would count that as a lie when I made confession next Saturday, if I would add it to the lie about not having heard Mother Lucy the first time. Kevin always had the Peugeot 505 parked at the school gates right after the bell rang. Kevin had many other chores to do for Papa and I was not allowed to keep him waiting, so I always dashed out of my last class. Dashed, as though I were running the 200-meters race at the interhouse sports competition. Once, Kevin told Papa I took a few minutes longer, and Papa slapped my left and right cheeks at the same time, so his huge palms left parallel marks on my face and ringing in my ears for days.
Things begin to change when Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma manages to convince her brother to let the children come stay with her and her family for a week during a school break, under the pretense of going to visit a pilgrimage site. Ifeoma, a widow and university professor, is a vibrant, strong, colorful woman, and at first Kambili doesn’t know how to behave around her or her opinionated children. She is painfully shy and afraid to do or say anything that she’ll have to later confess to her father. This includes even having a relationship with her grandfather, whom her Papa considers a pagan heathen, since he never converted to Catholicism. As Kambili and Jaja stay with Ifeoma, they start to open up, speak their minds more, laugh, and learn a new way to be a family. Inevitably, this new consciousness chafes against the ways that their Papa controls them and their mother.
This was one of those books that had potential to be “too heavy” for me, a self-described wimp when it comes to sad things in books. But Adichie has such a succinct yet beautiful way of writing, with not a word wasted, that even when she describes painful events, it’s not too much to handle. Ifeoma’s home and community in Nsukka is such a vibrant, loving environment, I longed to be there, embraced and cared for by her and her children. We also meet a kind, strong, attractive young priest named Father Amadi, who is a positive, fatherly figure for Ifeoma’s children and other children in Nsukka. He and Kambili develop a unique friendship and he helps draw her out of her shell, giving her a glimpse at another way to embody the Catholic faith. He’s a lovely character.
I’m so glad we chose this novel to read for my book group. I had it on my TBR, but you know about my TBR, right? Things might linger there for one, two, three years before I “get around to them,” if I ever do. Don’t make the same mistake I made – get your hands on a copy of this gorgeous, sad, but ultimately hopeful novel sooner rather than later!