Nigerian Novel Explores Religion and Silence

10 November 2004
book review

Washington, DC — Purple Hibiscus. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chapel Hill:Algonquin, 2003. 320 pp. $16.77 cloth, $10.40 paper. 165123875

Purple Hibiscus, the debut novel of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a flavorful, intense story of an unhappy family, and also of Nigeria's slow recovery from colonialism. Kambili lives with her brother and parents in a huge compound in Enugu, Nigeria. A smart fifteen-year old who is trying to overcome her shyness, Kambili narrates the story from beginning to end. She is one of those narrators who lets you read between the lines, who doesn't give away too much, and often seems smarter than the adults. Around the bare bones of the plot, she wraps detail upon detail of domestic life. I could almost taste the moi moi and cashew juice, could almost see the red and purple hibiscuses in the flowerbeds. "Our yard was wide enough to hold a hundred people dancing atilogu," Adichie writes, "spacious enough for each dancer to do the usual somersaults and land on the next dancer's shoulder. The compound walls, topped by coiled electric wires, were so high I could not see the cars driving by on our street."

There is a long tradition in literature of oppressive and angry fathers. Kambili's father has two sides, at least. Each resonates clearly with the reader, making the father a complex and compelling character. A lesser author would have turned him into a simple villain. Adichie does not. Eugene is a successful businessman, a pillar of the community who owns a factory and a newspaper that courageously condemns injustice. He is fiercely religious, devoted to Catholicism, to God and purity. He beats his wife and children every time they sin or fail to live up to his expectations. Eugene does rush them to the hospital on a number of occasions, and it's obvious that he cares for his family. Kambili and her brother Jaja, both teenagers, are almost machine-like in their interactions with other people. They avoid their father's wrath at all costs. Their mother, Beatrice, seems beaten down by the abuse she has taken and watched. She nurses the children's wounds and chooses colors for the curtains.

What makes Purple Hibiscus so interesting is the position of the family within the larger picture of Nigeria. This is a story about Nigeria's recovery from colonialism because Eugene was among the first generation to come into contact with the European missionaries. In order to go to school, children needed to convert to Christianity, so Eugene and many of his contemporaries did. He takes the teaching so seriously that he condemns all practice of his native religion, and becomes uptight and self-righteous. Religion is everything. Perfection is the goal. He accepts nothing short of perfection from himself or his family. Every time they slip, he punishes them. Just how much he punishes himself is up to the reader to ascertain. We are left wondering how deep the wounds go, and who we should root for.

Purple Hibiscus begins with a nod to Chinua Achebe, "Things began to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère." The novel tracks this family as the chilly, icebound order begins to break down, and something new replaces it. Visiting their aunt and her three children, Kambili and Jaja get a chance to see how a more ordinary, relaxed family functions. They come to know their "heathen" grandfather, whom Eugene will not see because he insists on practicing his traditional Igbo religion. For all its subtle, quiet storytelling, it is an exciting book, with too many climaxes to name. Adichie kept tricking me, making me think I had figured everything out before coming to yet another climactic scene.

When I began reading this book, I thought it was a story of adolescence, of a bright young girl coming of age. I expected more hormones, more rebellion, more Kambili. Instead I find that Kambili is telling a story that is bigger than she is. She could be called a protagonist, but oftentimes her job is to watch, to try to understand, to follow. The narration is her chance to speak, something she rarely does in her life at the beginning. Painfully shy, even around her family, Purple Hibiscus gives Kambili the chance to find her own voice.

The novel deals adeptly with themes of language and silence. It is written in English and peppered with Igbo, the local language that Kambili's family speaks. The result is a text that seems richer and more layered than it would have otherwise, but there is more to this. Characters speak English in formal settings and Igbo in informal ones. The father rarely speaks Igbo. Sometimes when he is angry he speaks in Igbo; other times he says a very long prayer in English.

Just as the book's characters speak English in formal settings, they also behave differently in public and private. Throughout the book, characters struggle with the task of communication. This is a novel of silence, of things left unsaid. It raises more questions than it answers. Is Kambili a storyteller, and why can she say things in her narrative that she would never say to her family? Why is silence so important to communication?

This is no easy book. Early on, I thought it might have a moral or might fit into a box, but Adichie surprised me by showing how complex these characters really are. I would recommend Purple Hibiscus to anyone who loves a good psychological mystery when it is wrapped up as a literary novel or to anyone who wants to be drawn into a story by elegant language and robust plot. This is not a delicate novel. Several times I cringed as I read of the abuse Eugene was inflicting on his children and wife. But it's not all depressing. Kambili's cousin, Amaka, listens to Fela Kuti, is a fierce young feminist and asks tough questions. Her whole family cackles when they laugh. There are scenes of laughter and warmth, laughter that is often earned as the relief from suffering.

Overall, Purple Hibiscus is a keeper. It is sharp, passionate, and compelling. It drew me into the narrative like I was one of the family and kept me interested like I had a personal stake in its conclusion.

Norah Vawter is an intern at allAfrica.com, focusing on the book review page. She received her B.A. from the College of William and Mary, where she studied English literature and edited the fiction section of the William and Mary Review.

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