Paperback, 307 pages
Published: 2005 by Harper Perennial (1st published 2003)
Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2004), Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2004), John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee (2004), Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction (2004), Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book Overall (2005)
Nigeria teeters on the brink of a political coup. This instability has been provoked by the government’s harsh repression of free speech; journalists are risking their lives to stand up for freedom. Wrapped within this larger story is the tale narrated by 15-year-old Kambili, who watches her family’s stability unravel after her brother Jaja makes his own bid for freedom.
On Palm Sunday Jaja doesn’t go to communion. The children have spent their lives in a elegant, carefully ordered home where they’ve lived in terror of their maniacally religious, controlling father. Kambili and and Jaja just returned from a 10-day visit to their aunt and cousins in an academic community. Aunty Ifeoma’s house lacked the material comfort to which they were accustomed, but for the first time the kids experienced a kind of faith and way of life that is filled with joy and laughter. They all participated in household chores, actively contributing to the family’s survival and well-being. Physical punishment was relatively mild. And the children were actively encouraged to disagree and debate the issues of the day. Having experienced a taste of freedom, Kambili and Jaja have been changed.
Jaja’s act of defiance, refusing to take communion, triggers a storm in their family.
Everything came tumbling down after Palm Sunday. Howling winds came with an angry rain, uprooting frangipani trees in the front yard. They lay on the lawn, their pink and white flowers grazing the grass, their roots waving lumpy soil in the air. The satellite dish on top of the garage came crashing down, and lounged on the driveway like a visiting alien spaceship. The door of my wardrobe dislodged completely. Sisi broke a full set of Mama’s china. Even the silence that descended on the house was sudden, as though the old silence had broken and left us with sharp pieces.
Throughout the novel, as in the above quote, the story of Kambili’s family and her difficult journey through adolescence are seamlessly connected to descriptions of the natural world around them. Their experiences are reflected in nature in a way that is sometimes tumultuous and sometimes wondrous. For example, after spending time at Aunty Ifeoma’s house and becoming aware of herself as a person who has thoughts and feelings separate from her father’s, Kambili has a spiritual awakening. It begins this way:
We stood underneath a huge flame-of-the-forest tree. It was in bloom, its flowers fanning out on wide branches and the ground underneath covered with petals the color of fire. When the young girl was led out, the flame-of-forest swayed and flowers rained down.
This novel is gorgeous. I love the sensual beauty of the imagery, the vibrant color, and the vivid descriptions of the flora, fauna, and climate of Nigeria.
The author’s exploration of Kambili’s psyche is so real I felt I was a part of her. I loved watching Kambili become aware of her own body and begin to experience her own emotions and really feel the world around her.
The other characters are also beautifully drawn and complex. Kambili’s harsh, brutally controlling father, Eugene, could easily have been a caricature and a person who seems unworthy of the reader’s compassion. He commits horrible acts against his family, and he lives in luxury while surrounded by impoverished families in a somewhat feudal community. Yet he is fully human. He stands up for human rights and pays tuition for many needy children. And at moments, he shows deep love and tenderness for his family. His charity work and loving moments with his family are inextricably entangled with his need to control others. However, I can’t entirely loathe him.
Kambili’s passive and emotionally damaged mother is also a complicated character; I couldn’t predict exactly what she would do. I was equally drawn to her brother Jaja, their fiercely intelligent and kind but flawed Aunty Ifeoma, their grandfather, who practices traditional “pagan” beliefs, and Aunty Ifeoma’s brilliant, feisty and outspoken children.
What shines most of all, I think, are the myriad themes woven into Purple Hibiscus. It explores control versus freedom, which we see played out within an individual, a family, a community, a nation, and throughout the world. It probes the conflict between traditional tribal beliefs and “white man’s religion” in post-colonial Africa. It explores the cruel marriage between religion and repression, and it also gives us glimpses of what genuine faith, rooted in personal freedom, can be. At the same time, it looks at the role nature plays in people’s everyday lives and a young girl’s coming of age.
While it is heart-wrenching, this is ultimately a hopeful story illuminated by love, personal awakening, and the persistence of human desire for freedom.