Title: Purple Hibiscus
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publication date: 2003
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre/themes: Realist fiction, Cultural – Africa, Historical Fiction
Source: Borrowed from the library
Series?: No, this book is a standalone.
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Fifteen-year-old Kambili’s world is circumscribed by the high walls and frangipani trees of her family compound. Her wealthy Catholic father, under whose shadow Kambili lives, while generous and politically active in the community, is repressive and fanatically religious at home.
When Nigeria begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili’s father sends her and her brother away to stay with their aunt, a University professor, whose house is noisy and full of laughter. There, Kambili and her brother discover a life and love beyond the confines of their father’s authority. The visit will lift the silence from their world and, in time, give rise to devotion and defiance that reveal themselves in profound and unexpected ways. This is a book about the promise of freedom; about the blurred lines between childhood and adulthood; between love and hatred, between the old gods and the new.
This book was really interesting on two levels. One the first level it is my first encounter with a book by an African author set in a country where I know very little about. The time period is right about a military coup and the consequence of that coup are very visible. The second level is the story of Kambili and her family. In their situation the military coup is a part of the background rather than the main event in their lives.
So first, the military coup. I know, like I said, little to nothing about the history of Africa. That is really one of the reasons for me to pick this up. The situation that Nigerians had to deal with is terrible. There is scarcity of food, water, electricity. Basically everything. Even a well trained professor like Kambili’s aunt has problems with feeding her family. People disappear when they speak out against the regime. The people revolt but nothing really changes. Instead of staying and trying to chance things the educated people are fleeing to America. How awful this may sound, this was not the main theme of this book. I was really the backdrop to which this story was set. A reminder that things can be terrible outside your door but that they can be even worse inside.
Kambili and her family live a good life. Kambili’s father is wealthy and own a newspaper and several factories. They have enough money for food and life in a big house. Kambili’s father Eugene is a devoted Christian. They go to mass every Sunday and there are lengthy prayer sessions before each meal and before bed. Eugene is in essence a good person, a really loving father and husband. But, and this was difficult to accept for me at first, he is a good person despite the terrible things he does in the name of Christianity. His abuse was not OK, but it was not fueled by his hatred but rather by his fear for the wrath of God. This shed an entirely new light on how behavior works. Beliefs can make you a better person, but also a more evil person. Kambili loves her father. Sometimes she is ashamed she does. Especially when Eugene lashes out against her brother Jaja, or his wife. But Kambili understand why her father does it. I think that this takes incredible courageous; she remains believing in the goodness of her father.
Jaja, is different. He cannot reconcile the goodness of his father (that he believes in at first) with the abuse. When Jaja and Kambili go to live with her aunt for some time, they see how different a family can be. At first they are strangers to their cousins but something beautiful happens when they strengthen their family bonds. Here is where Jaja can bloom and become his own person. From then on he goes against his father. He reacts in ways Kambili never can. The ending is unsuspected and it took me some time to figure out what was happening after the last page. This read was really powerful and provided me with new insights.