chimimanda ngozi adichie - purple hibiscus book review

Book Review | Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili and her brother, Jaja, live in the beautiful but stifling confines of their family home in Enugu, Nigeria. On the surface a life of privilege – they have a driver, a housekeeper and attend a prestigious school – their life at home is anything but easy. Their father Eugene, a respected man in the community, is tyrannical behind closed doors.

Eugene is a religious zealot, devoted to his Catholic faith and unaccepting of anyone who he deems a ‘heathen’ who follows ancestral religions – including his own father. There’s an unspoken web of wrongs and rights, and Kambili, Jaja, and their mother carefully try to walk the tightrope, never knowing what will incite fury. Content warnings abound at this point for serious, unforgivable acts of domestic violence, some of which amount to torture.

Yet Adichie draws Eugene as a complex character. We loathe him, but our protagonist loves him. It’s one of the remarkable feats of this novel that paints him as three-dimensional. And now seems like a good time to talk about the expertly-controlled narration, the psychological insight into the emotional turmoil of our fifteen-year-old narrator. Kambili is a quiet presence, but she holds her own – a powerfully vulnerable girl trying to make sense of the world.

There comes an opportunity for Kambili and Jaja to see another side of life. They’ve never spent a night away from their parents, but when their exuberant Aunt Ifeoma turns up, she manages to convince Eugene to let the siblings stay with her and her children for a few days. Kambili and Jaja arrive to a house much poorer than their own, but rich in ways theirs could never be; full of games, music, television and laughter.

‘It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.’

Outside the confines of this family drama, Nigeria is also brought to life; Adichie weaves the Igbo language throughout, the smells and tastes of traditional stews and soups, the seasonal harmattan winds which blow over from the Sahara. And humming in the background is the political and social postcolonial landscape of deep unrest, corruption and instability. There are things which no amount of money can shield you from.

‘There was something hanging over all of us. Sometimes I wanted it all to be a dream – the missal flung at the étagère, the shattered figurines, the brittle air. It was too new, too foreign, and I did not know what to be or how to be.’

This is a startling, expressive, and compulsive coming-of-age story, and I can’t believe it took me this long to get to read it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

P.S. I also feel compelled to say that endorsement of this novel is in no way endorsement of Adichie’s transphobic views. Trans lives matter, we must affirm and protect them – end of story.

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