Happy Canada Day to those who celebrate it! I have just returned from a family vacation in California. In the past, when my children were smaller, I’ve packed several books for this yearly ten-day vacation and gotten nothing read at all, not a word. More recently, now that they’re a little more self-entertaining, I can get something read, but with all my extended family to talk to, it’s never as much as I think it will be. So this time, I cleverly stacked up my books for the trip and then left half of them at home — only to have my trip extended by a week when my sister fell severely ill and I needed to stay to help care for her family while she recovered. This story has a happy ending, though: 1) my sister is recovering very well, and 2) I visited two irresistible bookstores while I was there, and was amply stocked for the occasion. I’ll review the books I read on the trip later, but for the moment I’m still horribly backlogged, and am catching up from months ago!
Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel. About two years ago, I read Half of a Yellow Sun, her novel about the Biafran war, and was so moved and shaken by its ability to evoke the human capacity for change through suffering that I put Adichie on my list of authors to follow. Although Purple Hibiscus is less complex than Half of a Yellow Sun — fewer characters, fewer story lines, and a more linear time frame — it, too, refuses caricature, even of characters who might easily be static in other hands. The possibility of change and growth is everywhere.
Purple Hibiscus is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Kambili, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Nigerian man, Eugene Achike. Eugene is a devout Catholic, but uses his devotion as a tool to abuse his family physically and psychologically, including his wife Beatrice and both his children, Kambili and her brother Jaja. As a result, Kambili is very shy, compliant, and sheltered, until she and her brother have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with their Aunty Ifeoma at Nsukka. This family is also Catholic, but in a different mode: they are liberal and accepting, and encourage the children in the family to speak their minds and make rational arguments. In this environment — much poorer than Kambili’s family, and much more questioning of the government’s decisions — not only does Kambili open up and begin to think for herself, she falls in love with a Catholic priest and becomes aware of her own sexuality.
If this were all there were to Purple Hibiscus, I wouldn’t necessarily be recommending it. It sounds simple to the point of being simplistic. But in fact, this is a rich postcolonial novel laced with important feminist concerns. No character is quite as he or she seems, not even the domineering and abusive father, not even the frightened mother, not even Kambili, whose internal voice we hear. If I’m remembering correctly, I don’t think we see a single white person in this book, but the white colonial/ postcolonial presence is everywhere: in the rites of the Catholic church (which has a white portrait of Jesus, so maybe that counts), in the structure of the educational system, in the idea of America, in the crisis of rationing and the student riots, in the sharp binaries between rich and poor, city and village, Christian and pagan.
Adichie never succumbs to these binaries. In the voice of a sheltered 15-year-old, she questions them all: is there a shadowy area in between? Must we make a choice? Who benefits from that choice? Adichie tells the story of contemporary Nigeria in what might otherwise be a fairly obvious coming-of-age book. Because of this, I found myself much more deeply engaged than I thought I might be. The ending is cautiously hopeful, though (as in Half of a Yellow Sun) Adichie leaves it unclear where exactly the hope may lie. It may be that life itself is hope enough for her. I look forward to reading more of her work.