Set in Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus is a wonderful and intense read that grabbed me from the very beginning and made me sit and read it over the course of a couple days. Kambili Achike, a young native Nigerian teenage girl, is the central character and the story is mostly about a particularly difficult time her family must endure. Her father, Eugene, is a highly successful business and man and leader of her extended family and the local area in general. He gives money generously to many well-deserved charities and causes and he supports and protects the only remaining newspaper that will speak out against the various and changing military regimes that rule their post colonial country. But in private, he is an intolerant religious zealot and abusive monster; he beats and abuses his wife Beatrice, Kambili and her brother Jaja for the slightest infraction or deviance from the rules and structures he has set up for all of them. His intolerance and dominance of the family has broken his wife completely while Kambili seems to operate like a ghost, saying little and striving to please her father no matter what. Their family unit begins to break down when Kambili and her brother are allowed to go visit their Aunty Ifeoma, who is a professor at a college and is much more liberal and loving then her brother could ever be. While there, Kambili begins to grow more into herself and begins to feel some of the weight and actions of adulthood. By the end of the book, Kambili is a more complete person and her family has been irreconcilably changed.
There is a lot to think about and talk about from this book. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie packs a lot into her book and does a great job of letting it all amplify her central narrative about a young girl taking the first steps into becoming a grown woman. The situation that Kambili must deal with is in many ways unusual, especially for a Western audience, but I think it’s simple to look past all of that and see the basic trials and challenges that most humans face as they grow up in the modern world. What I found most enjoyable about this book is the simply expressions of humanity and family that it does so well. The small ways that her brother and mother protect each other from their dad, the way Jaja will try to take responsibilities for mistakes or infractions because he feels he can deal with the punishment better and because it’s his responsibility as a man and Kambili’s older brother. Or the small ways that Beatrice has been broken and remolded into Eugene’s wife, while terrible and sad, also ring incredibly true and tragic. Even her father, who is an unmitigated monster, is a completely believable and convincing person. The way he uses religion and authority to batter his family down stands in such stark contrast with how generous and a force for good he seems to be in the public and community. He stands up to their oppressive government, he is extremely generous with their church, with the much poorer people in their city and he takes care of a large clan (tribe?) of extended family members. None of that balances out who he is, or makes how he treats his family okay, he is a monster, but that dichotomy in his behavior makes the book more complicated and it makes Kambili’s relationships with him extremely tricky and nearly impossible for her to navigate. Because she has always lived with him, she just accepts the good and the bad. She feels real, genuine pride and love for him when he does something brave and great outside of the home, and she tamps down her fear of him when he abuses her or her brother or her mother. It’s incredibly sad and powerful.
The book is not a complete downer though. Kambili and her brother eventually make their way to their Aunty Ifeoma’s house, which is several hours away and on a college. It’s here where the book brightens considerably and we get to see a different kind of family that is much more loving and open with each other than Kambili’s family is. Ifeoma encourages her kids to talk and converse with each other and her as equals and friends instead of subordinate family members; Kambili and Jaja start to come into their own in this second home and it comes across the pages what an incredibly different place Ifeoma’s house is from Eugene. Adichie does an amazing job of creating two distinct and different households that both feel related to each other and part of the same world. When Kambili and her brother returned to their own house for the first time you can feel the different on the page; darkness and fear grow and distort the story and characters as they stay there longer and longer. It’s incredibly sad and heartbreaking.
Maybe my favorite part of the book is the dual ways religion is portrayed in the book. Both households are committed Catholics but beyond that they have very little in common when it comes to the way Eugene and his family worship and the way Ifeoma’s family worship. In a way, this is the part of the book I could relate to the most; I come from a very actively religious family and seeing two families lead such radically different ways of life and belief felt really familiar and understandable. Eugene uses religion as a weapon, as a club to beat his family into the way he wants them to act and believe. It’s chilling and heartbreaking to watch his wife and children break under his many punishments. Ifeoma on the other hand uses God and religion as a guide, as a gentle way of raising her kids. Some of them are more overtly religious than other ones, but they all love and care for each other in a positive way, unlike in Kambili’s family, where they band together to protect each other from the wrath of their father.
The book wraps up on a slightly positive note and a little too neatly for my tastes. I don’t know what else the author could have done, but the story devolves into a soap opera of sorts. There is murder, poison and death that kind of comes out of nowhere; in some ways it feels very satisfying because of the change it forces on some of the characters, but it still doesn’t quite work with the rest of the book. I realize that there was probably very few ways to end the story in a satisfactory way, considering what has happened, but it does feel like a weak point for what was up till then a truly great read.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie displays great skill and understanding of both her home country, native people, and people in general. There is so much going on in this book that I could have written a couple more thousand words on the book. Purple Hibiscus dives deep into Nigerian society, religion and family life in such a way that is truly impressive. I enjoyed this book immensely and will definitely be reading more of her stuff.
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