Sunday 6 October 2013

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We loved Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in my book group and wanted to read more of her work. When we discovered Americanah isn't available in paperback until next February, we plumped instead for her acclaimed debut novel Purple Hibiscus.

This is the story of Kambili, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy family who, thanks to her father's business enterprises, appears to have everything she could want. But, from the outset, the reader has the unsettling feeling that something is amiss; although materially well blessed, the lives of Kambili and her brother Jaja are dominated by their overzealous father. Outwardly Papa is charming, generous and principled in running his factories and the only newspaper in Nigeria to stand up to government tyranny, but at home he imposes his own strict brand of Catholicism, allowing Kambili no space to think for herself in her days dominated by his schedules. To be anything less than top of her class at school is unacceptable and she works hard to fulfil her father's wishes, accepting his disproportionate punishment when she inadvertently lapses into sin.

Kambili and Jaja communicate through a secret language, an empathy of looks; their Mama too chooses to speak few words for fear they might be the wrong ones. But Kambili is growing up and beginning to notice she's not like other teenagers, particularly her loud and opinionated cousins. And when a military coup prolongs the visit she and Jaja are making to their Aunty Ifeoma, a university lecturer threatened by her own struggle against corruption, they really begin to find their voices.  Meeting local priest Father Amadi introduces them to a gentler, more forgiving version of their faith but Papa is unwilling to loosen his grip and for Kambili, Jaja and Mama the struggle is ultimately a brutal one.

Kambili narrates her own story and, so intensely real is Adichie's closely observed writing, she immediately draws you in. Mama caresses her cornrows
she liked to do that, to trace the way strands of hair from different parts of my scalp meshed and held together...I could smell the chalky deodorant under her arms. Her brown face, flawless but for the recent jagged scar on her forehead, was expressionless.
while Papa offers her a sip of his tea
Have a love sip he would say...Then I would hold the cup with both hands and raise it to my lips. One sip. The tea was always too hot, always burned my tongue...But it didn't matter because I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa's love into me
The details of Kambili's world are vividly authentic, from the tastes and textures of the fufu and onugbu soup she eats for lunch to the exotic colours of the hibiscus and allamanda flowers. The smallest of shifts, such as Papa unexpectedly switching from English to Igbo, can signal a threatening change of mood, another sin to be corrected. You find yourself coming to care deeply for Kambili's well-being but Adichie is equally skilled in her portrayal of Papa, a black man following a white Jesus. She shows him not as an unthinking monster, rather a man capable of great goodness who, in the name of religion and saving their souls from eternal damnation, abuses his wife and children and all but cuts his ties with his own father and sister. Kambili's growing feelings for Father Amadi are also explored with great sensitivity, although I was a little less certain about his response.

Adichie's love of her homeland shines through every page, as too does her awareness of its many shortcomings. She writes of places she knows intimately and it shows; the university town of Nsukka where Aunty Ifeoma and the cousins live in their cramped and shabby flat is where Adichie herself grew up. Her hero is the renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and she incorporates the title of his book Things Fall Apart into this novel's opening line. Purple Hibiscus has a linear structure, simpler than Half of a Yellow Sun, retaining Kambili as its sole narrator throughout. Yet it's still an astonishingly confident and accomplished debut and one which makes me even more impatient for my book group to read Americanah.

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