October 2004

Loring Ann Pfeiffer


Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Until about a month ago, I had never read Things Fall Apart. Despite the fact that I was both an English major in college and had a more-than-decent high school Literature teacher, Chinua Achebe's classic tale of colonial Nigeria had somehow failed to appear on any of my secondary or post-secondary syllabi. So I read it. And just a few days after I finished it, Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book about contemporary Nigeria, arrived in the mail as one of the first books I was to review for Bookslut. Given the number of reviews that compare Adichie to Achebe, I considered my recent Things Fall Apart read rather fortuitous, and promptly set out to compare the two.

Here's what happened: I liked Adichie's book better.

Now I want to make clear here that I'm not arguing that Purple Hibiscus is a better book. Things Fall Apart totally deserve its status and should be widely read and has a lot to say about a lot of things. But it ended up being one of those books that I finished not because I loved its characters or the writing, but because I wanted to be able to cross it off that guilt-inducing list of Books I Should Have Read But Somehow Have Managed Not To (next up, Anna Karenina).

Purple Hibiscus, on the other hand, I deeply enjoyed. Mostly because, at heart, it's a coming of age novel narrated by a fifteen-year-old girl. At times I felt like I was reading Judy Blume or non-sci-fi Madeline L'Engle -- two authors whose adolescent fiction I tore through as a youth, the broken bindings on my copies of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and A Ring of Endless Light proof of repeated rereadings. I just felt so at home in Adichie's smooth, often lyrical writing and in Kambili, the narrator, that the book flew by, and ultimately proved a very pleasant read.

Purple Hibiscus opens on Palm Sunday, with Kambili's father, Eugene, throwing a prayer book across the living room, aiming to hit her brother Jaja as punishment for his refusal to take communion at mass earlier that day. A strict Catholic and a wealthy and powerful man, Eugene is completely intolerant of insubordination, especially when it comes from his immediate family members. Although he can be charming and generous, his temper is unpredictable and sometimes frightening, and Kambili, Jaja, and their mother invest a lot of energy trying to abide by his regulations in order to avoid angering him.

As the book unfolds, however, we witness the ways in which Kambili, Jaja, and their mother have begun to question Eugene's dictatorial rule over the family. Just as Eugene's own newspaper refuses to support the military government currently in power in Nigeria, so his own family eventually comes to stand up against his tyranny.
The book is primarily focused on Kambili's questioning of her father, which begins in earnest during the course of several extended visits to Eugene's sister's house. At Aunty Ifeoma's, there are few rules. Unlike at home, where Eugene creates a daily schedule for Jaja and Kambili, at Ifeoma's the only requirement is that everyone helps cook and clean. Children speak at the dinner table, the family sings after they pray, and everyone is permitted to share food and sleeping space with their non-Catholic grandfather (behaviors strictly forbidden by Eugene). Although Kambili is initially frightened by all the freedom at Ifeoma's, she eventually comes to appreciate it. She makes friends with her politicized, Fela Kuti-listening cousin; she develops a (totally innocent and sweet) crush on an African priest; and she otherwise enjoys the privileges of being fifteen, which her father's rigidity so frequently deny her when she's at home.

Because of Eugene's public stance against the government, as the military coup continues, the Achike house gets less and less safe and Eugene gets more and more abusive. Eventually Kambili, Jaja, and their mother all spend a chunk of time at their Aunty's house, waiting for things to cool down at home. Away from Eugene, all three have the time and space to question his authority more deeply, and Purple Hibiscus ultimately concludes with a series of events that would have seemed unimaginable earlier in the novel, when the family's only goal seemed to be placating Eugene.

Ultimately, Purple Hibiscus is about a teenaged girl separating her own values from those she has been taught and, in the process, creating a personality for herself. Adichie does an absolutely marvelous job of recreating those pieces of adolescence. Indeed, this book so successfully evoked feelings of teenaged self-consciousness and insecurity that I was reminded of a whole host of personal psychological issues that I am very glad to have left behind. It is because of this kind of evocation, because of its lyricism, and because I just plain adored the character of Kambili that I stormed through Purple Hibiscus as quickly as I did. All told, the book is much quieter than Things Fall Apart, but it resonated with me in a totally pleasing way, and there's always space, even in my list-bound universe, for a book that can do that.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
ISBN: 1400076943
320 Pages