I’m a little in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection, ‘The Thing Around Her Neck’, and her book-length essay, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. On the other hand, I haven’t really connected with her novels on that level. It’s great writing but there is usually something about the story that feels a little off. Unrestrained by word-count, Adichie has a tendency to get carried away and that makes her novels a bit unstructured. Or maybe it’s just bad editing.
But I still enjoyed ‘Purple Hibiscus’, Adichie’s debut novel and winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. It’s a coming of age story that unravels as a military regime comes to power in Nigeria. Set against the backdrop of a coup, it is as much about the struggles of a politically troubled Nigeria as it is about a seemingly normal Nigerian family governed by abuse and control.
Narrated in the first person by 15-year-old Kambili Achike, living in an affluent household with her brother, Jaja; her mother, Beatrice; and her father, Eugene, Purple Hibiscus will have you contemplating about life and your beliefs while reinforcing the fact that abuse is never acceptable and that it can’t ever be a sign of love.
To the world, Eugene is a good man. He is the publisher of the newspaper ‘Standard’ in Enugu, goes to mass regularly, and doesn’t hesitate to help others, often without taking any credit for it. But at home, it’s a different matter altogether. Kambili and Jaja live in constant fear of his beatings, which Eugene views as “lessons” on becoming more pious Catholics. Beatrice has had many miscarriages because of Eugene’s violent nature but she never stands up to him. Instead, she is always trying to please him, and she ends up at the hospital when she can’t do that.
But the family doesn’t know any other way of life and thinks whatever is happening is all for their benefit. Eugene’s actions are never met with any resistance. However, things change when Kambili and Jaja go to visit their aunt, Ifeoma, who is a university professor in Nsukka. Here, in a house way smaller than theirs, the siblings encounter a new way of life that allows them to speak, laugh, and not worry about being punished because of someone’s mood swings. For the first time, Kambili realizes that she is free to have opinions and ideas of her own.
Purple Hibiscus is a beautiful story of a girl blossoming and coming into her own, though the narrative is a tad slow at times. The story also heartbreaking and beautifully captures the tension between oppression and our innate desire to be free. The only problem I had with Purple Hibiscus is that there are many things happening but they all feel a bit underdeveloped. That’s perhaps why none of the characters stay with you when you are done. I would still recommend it to those in want of an introspective read, for it definitely gives you some food for thought.