Having already read and loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, I had high expectations for Purple Hibiscus. Also set in Nigeria, this book tells the story of 15-year-old Kambili, living an apparently privileged life under a violent patriarch, tinged with religious fervour and surrounded by political unrest. Living with her mother and brother Jaja with their father – a powerful, rich and respected man – their lives are shaped by the ongoing psychological, economic and physical abuse. Kambili’s life is changed when she and Jaja stay with their Aunty Ifeoma, an university lecturer in Nsukka. Here, life is bright and loud; their cousins are poorer, sharper, and embrace a more loving family than Kambili and Jaja have been treated to by their father.
This story’s strength and weakness both come from the narration viewpoint of Kambili. The narration is at an appropriate level for the highly educated 15-year-old, and as the story develops the subjects the narrative shies away from are the same subjects Kamibil herself shies away from. There is a purity in the representation of Kambili, and it’s easy to appreciate the beauty in how she has been crafted by Adichie. It is an engaging read; there is something haunting about the voice of an abused girl who looks at her father with equal parts of fear and love.
However, I am finding it all a little frustrating in trying to review this story: there are some images that I just have not shaken, but I am also pulled in so many directions in deciding what to cover. What is this book about? Freedom, the downfall of a family, power, a girl coming-of-age, a country coming-of-age? The man, Kambili’s father, who shapes so much of this plot is voiceless, but we see his deformed face, hear his frustration, and see the wounds he inflicts on his family out of ‘love’. And maybe that is what I am finding so difficult here: he pours boiling water over his childrens’ feet; his wife’s countless miscarriages are due to his physical abuse; Kambili lives in a real, deep-seated fear of not coming first in her class, but when she studies her books the letters and numbers all bleed together and become the blood she saw coming from her mother as she lost another child after being beaten by her father. Her terror is very real. It is hard to relate to the larger story when these images are so vivid, his justifications are so pallid, and it is all just accepted and related by Kambili.
And for me this was a flaw in the book: while on the surface the plot is engaging, it is the voice of Kambili that doesn’t allow us to go any further. I found it difficult when Kambili, and therefore the reader, didn’t connect with Aunty Ifeoma and her family: she had obviously become a character I cared about, and I felt frustrated when she didn’t take the opportunities life in Nsukka offered her. If this 15-year-old-girl doesn’t want to or can’t speculate on, for example, the reasons for her father’s abuse, or the reason why the newspaper editor was kidnapped, then the reader doesn’t know. It’s hard to articulate: Kambili is a beautifully structured, empathetic, realistic character, but she does not engage with so much going on around her. Perhaps this is out of necessity: as a child who has grown up in an abusive home, withdrawing from anything that may bring her attention or further violence is a form of self-protection. However, the story’s style of narration means that the reader is similarly withdrawn, and I wanted more than this surface-world for Kambili.
Despite these frustrations, this is a good book. The spectre of abuse, the consequential religious fervour, the simple love of a loud family, and the political and cultural world that shapes all this. It is an engaging and honest read, showing a whole world of Kambili – how you feel about her world will affect how you feel about the book.