Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
As vast a continent as Africa may be, most Americans are woefully unfamiliar with any of its literature. And the state of the translation market being as weak as it is, what we are familiar with tends to come strictly from the English-speaking areas, particularly South Africa (Alan Paton, J.M. Coetzee) and Nigeria (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka). Amongst the most promising young writers from the latter is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has been pursuing her education and career in the U.S. since she left Nigeria in 1996 at age 19.
In addition to a number of acclaimed short stories (and an upcoming story collection), Adichie has published two well-received novels. Her 2003 debut, Purple Hibiscus was long-listed for the Booker Prize, short-listed for the Orange Prize, and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and the hardcover remains in print six years later. Her 2007 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, received its own share of award nominations and was awarded the Orange Prize. Last year, Adichie received a prestigious (and financially generous) a MacArthur fellowship (i.e. "genius grant") as she pursues a graduate degree in African Studies at Yale.
Purple Hibiscus centers on the domestic life of 15-year old Kambili, who lives in Enugu, Nigeria, with her parents and older brother, Jaja. The novel opens with a brief chapter, depicting an episode of disobedience by Jaja toward his father on Palm Sunday. What might at first appear to be a relatively routine outburst by a 17-year old young man is quickly understood to be a singular departure from the state of affairs in this particular home. The bulk of the book depicts the months leading up to this eventful day, with the final section focused on the aftermath.
Kambili and Jaja's father, Eugene, is a wealthy, successful businessman, the publisher of a oft-dissident newspaper, and a zealous Catholic. Warmly viewed outside the home and upheld as an example by the local priest, at home Eugene subjects his family to a brutally strict regime of religious purity. He refuses to allow non-Catholics inside his home, extending this ban to his own father. And while his children are well-fed, well-clothed, and well-educated, they must abide by a daily schedule crafted by their father to script every moment of their lives, with lofty standards of success not merely expected, but demanded:
I came second in my class. It was written in figures: "2/25." My form mistress, Sister Clara, had written, "Kambili is intelligent beyond her years, quiet and responsible." The principal, Mother Lucy, wrote, "A brilliant, obedient student and a daughter to be proud of." But I knew Papa would not be proud. He had often told Jaja and me that he did not spend so much money on Daughters of the Immaculate Heart and St. Nicholas to have us let other children come first. Nobody had spent money on his own schooling, especially not his Godless father, our Papa-Nnukwu, yet he had always come first. I wanted to make Papa proud, to do as well as he had done. I needed him to touch the back of my neck and tell me that I was fulfilling God's purpose. I needed him to hug me close and say that to who much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.
This regime continues with only minor perturbations until Eugene's sister, Ifeoma, persuades him to allow Kambili and Jaja to spend several days with their cousins in her home in Nsukka. The experiences they have there, the connections they made with their extended family and others, fundamentally alter the children's worldviews and liberate them from the strictures of their father's sphere. Of particular importance to Kambili is the friendship she builds with Father Amadi, a young priest who incorporates more of the native culture into his Catholicism than the imported European clerics favored by Eugene. Father Amadi, soon to depart for a mission to Germany, favors Kambili with his attention, cultivating and inspiring an emotional evolution in the young woman:
I stared at the dashboard, at the blue-and-gold Legion of Mary sticker on it. Didn't he know that I did not want him to leave, ever? That I did not need to be persuaded to go to the stadium, or anywhere, with him? The afternoon played across my mind as I got out of the car in front of the flat. I had smiled, run, laughed. My chest was filled with something like bath foam. Light. The lightness was so sweet I tasted it on my tongue, the sweetness of an overripe bright yellow cashew fruit.
These changes manifest most dramatically in Jaja, whose open disobedience toward his father opens the book and is all the more shocking once we have seen the abusive oppression Eugene cultivated at home:
"Kambili, you are precious." His voice quavered now, like someone speaking at a funeral, choked with emotion. "You should strive for perfection. You should not see sin and walk right into it." He lowered the kettle into the tub, tilted it toward my feet. He poured the hot water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an experiment and wanted to see what would happen. He was crying now, tears streaming down his face. I saw the moist steam before I saw the water. I watched the water leave the kettle, flowing almost in slow motion in an arc to my feet. The pain of contact was so pure, so scalding, I felt nothing for a second. And then I screamed.
"That is what you do to yourself when you walk into sin. You burn your feet," he said.
The text offers a number of insights into the Nigerian way of life, particularly during the time Kambili spends in Nsukka, outside the walls of her own home: the food they eat, the community relationships, even the difficulty in traveling relatively short distances when there is such a shortage of fuel. The disparities in lifestyle between Kambili's own home and her extended family are striking, to Kambili as much as to the reader. Adichie also peppers the dialogue with a number of Igbo words; language itself is viewed as a reflection of status, as Kambili's father discourages its use in favor of English.
Adichie's portrayal of her teenage female protagonist is pitch-perfect, with a real sense of the wonder, the naivete, and the vulnerability of the character. Kambili truly comes of age in these pages. There is also a nicely interwoven undercurrent of the country's tumultuous politics, from the controversial efforts of Eugene's newspaper to the blacklisting at the university where Aunty Ifeoma lectures.
The only major misstep comes at the book's finish. Without revealing the final arc of the plot itself, suffice it to say that I felt quickly disconnected from a story I had become rather immersed in. The conclusion depends on a connection with Jaja which is simply absent from the preceding chapters. Whether because this is Adichie's first novel, the result of some pressure to finish, or simply another example of the inherent difficulty of writing a decent ending to a novel (which I adamantly believe to be the greatest challenge confronting a writer of fiction), the gratuitous and unoriginal flourishes at the end left me somewhat unsatisfied. Not enough, however, to dissuade me from looking forward to Adichie's other novel, her upcoming story collection, and whatever else her promising career brings forth.