Purple Hibiscus

purple hibiscusHappy 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.

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14 Responses to Purple Hibiscus

  1. Ah, she’s so great. I read Purple Hibiscus when I was a baby blogger — it might have been the first book I ever reviewed, actually — and then didn’t read any more Adichie until Americanah came out. Now she’s one of my favorite authors. She’s brilliant at not reducing anybody to stereotype, even when stereotype is difficult to avoid. <3

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to get at. One of the things I see most often in contemporary literature (or, really, mediocre lit of any kind) is a tendency to freeze people in one mode and not allow for gray areas of thought or character. Adichie doesn’t do this with anyone; she expects the expected and allows the unexpected to come along as it does in life.

  2. Adichie is incredibly talented. Purple Hibiscus is probably my least favorite of her novels, but it was still very good. Americanah was one of my favorite books I read last year (the other being The Goldfinch). Her insights on race in America are just brilliant, and on top of that she’s a wonderful storyteller who creates characters who feel very real.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m really looking forward to reading Americanah! And thanks for pointing out that she’s such a good storyteller, because I found that, too. Half of a Yellow Sun was a riveting story, along with all the historical, emotional, and philosophical implications of what happened in it.

  3. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite from Adichie’s novels, but I think I may actually prefer Purple Hibiscus over her two later ones. This may be because it was my introduction to her work, however – sometimes the first book you read from a new favorite author sticks with you more than subsequent books.

    Plus, I read this one in a college class, so I had the benefit of being able to discuss it with others (this was pre-blogging for me).

    • Jenny says:

      Analysing a book in a class makes such a difference! I love it when I really get to discuss something thoroughly in a group or just with one other person. It makes the work so much richer!

  4. I’ve read all Adichie’s works and I must say Purple Hibiscus touched me on many levels. Being African I could relate to that grey area in lots of our systems here; we keep questioning and wanting answers up till now.

    Brilliant review, Jenny.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re quite right — that grey area and the desire for answers continues, and I think Adichie gets that exactly right.

  5. Rebecca Reid says:

    I really love Adichie’s style. Your review has encouraged me to read the next book on my shelf by her!

  6. I only read part of your review because this is high on my TBR. I only discovered Adichie this year with Americanah. Loved it so much I bought everything I could find. I loved Yellow Sun and look forward to Purple and her collection of short stories. I’ve heard they both pale in comparison, but that would still make for great reading.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m really looking forward to Americanah, because in my opinion the leap between Purple Hibiscus and Yellow Sun was huge. I can’t wait to see what she has done with the newest one!

  7. I remember loving this book too! Though I think I read it before I was really able to identify great writing. This has inspired me to read more of her work (and probably re-read Purple Hibiscus too)… Great review!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks! I think if you read Yellow Sun at least (can’t vouch for Americanah yet, but I bet it’s even better) you’ll be blown away. It’s really wonderful.

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