This story is about the downfall of a family. When Kambili begins her story, you can’t tell what it is yet but you can feel that something is terribly wrong in her home. The tension is palpable and the poor girl is obviously deeply traumatized and it doesn’t take long to find the root of the problem: ‘Papa’.
Kambili’s family is ruled by a dictator, worse a religious dictator, I think her father could have used some therapy because either he is suffering from some kind of mental illness or he’s a highly functional psychopath. Not only has he completely perfected the art of dominating his family: he controls every minuscule aspect of their lives, they don’t have friends, no independent thought is allowed, he has created robots out of his children, they are quiet and not because they are introverts. He has also appointed himself God’s justice, he decides what is sinful and comes up with the appropriate punishment, his wife and children have all been maimed and they all carry the scars of their ‘sins’.
I want to hate him, I want to see his philanthropic works as manipulation of society, I want to say that he has perfected the art of brainwashing his daughter and that the times he shows a gentle, caring and loving side is really a ploy to keep them dependent on him, but Chimamanda Adichie has created a character that simply needs help, you get the sense sometimes that he truly believes he is saving his family from damnation, the things he does are out of love, and he won’t stop even if it hurts him.
This family dynamic begins to crumble when he makes the mistake of letting his children visit his university lecturer sister, Ifeoma, at Nsukka. Here, Kambili is shocked to find a home where the children are allowed opinions, in fact it is encouraged.
“I did not say anything else until lunch was over, but I listened to every word spoken, followed every cackle of laughter and line of banter. Mostly, my cousins did the talking and Aunty Ifeoma sat back and watched them, eating slowly. She looked like a football coach who had done a good job with her team and was satisfied to stand next to the eighteen-yard box and watch.”
Prayer means praise, worship and praying for the health of your loved ones, not the constant seeking of forgiveness and preventing eternal damnation that she’s used to. She finds it difficult to adjust, in fact she resists the change in her bid to please her father even though he wasn’t anywhere near her, her brother, Jaja, finds it easier and you can tell that his thinking is being modified.
The children continue visiting Nsukka for a number of reasons, I don’t want to spoil the story, and each visit makes it that much harder to accept the oppressive nature of their home life and everyone starts to rebel in their own way. Of course, I wish Mama wasn’t a slave to the culture that says a woman should be grateful that she is married, even if her husband is a nutjob; but we can’t have it all.
The story is set in Enugu, Nsukka and Abba around the time that Abacha came into power, there is a coup around the beginning of the story. The country is also under an oppressive cloud, university student’s are rioting, human rights activists are being executed without trial, letter bombs are delivered to journalists that refuse to tow the company line; Oppression is clearly a theme here, in the country and at home.
Through Kambili’s eyes and her thoughts, you can feel it, it makes you cringe, there are goose pimples on your skin and you feel the bile rise in your throat. Usually, I take stories that evoke strong reactions from me in small doses, but I couldn’t stop because I knew it had to end, you can feel a change stirring. No dictator can rule forever. I was also angry, I found myself yelling and cursing (in my head, of course :)); at these kids, at mama: “Are you planning to leave this place in a coffin?”.
I also found it ironic that Papa would pay for the therapy of a traumatized child (his employee’s), when he and his family obviously need intensive therapy. I could write a book about this story and it still wouldn’t be enough.
There are only a few stories that have managed to grip me so profoundly; this is the work of a master. Even more so because this was Chimamanda Adichie’s first novel, the way she’s crafted the story just transports you effortlessly into the world she has created. There is no awkward description of scenes to be found here, only reality. This book was published 13 years ago and I can’t believe I missed it.
“There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time. It is like telling a crawling baby who tries to walk, and then falls back on his buttocks, to stay there. As if the adults walking past him did not all crawl, once.”
“Being defiant can be a good thing sometimes,” Aunty Ifeoma said. “Defiance is like marijuana – it is not a bad thing when it is used right.”
“Mama had greeted him the traditional way that women were supposed to, bending low and offering him her back so that he would pat it with his fan made of the soft, straw-colored tail of an animal. Back home that night, Papa told Mama that it was sinful. You did not bow to another human being. It was an ungodly tradition, bowing to an Igwe. So, a few days later, when we went to see the bishop at Awka, I did not kneel to kiss his ring. I wanted to make Papa proud. But Papa yanked my ear in the car and said I did not have the spirit of discernment: the bishop was a man of God; the Igwe was merely a traditional ruler.”
Title: Purple Hibiscus
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by: Algonquin Books
Year of Publication: 2003
Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. They live in a beautiful house, with a caring family, and attend an exclusive missionary school. They’re completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, as Kambili reveals in her tender-voiced account, things are less perfect than they appear. Although her Papa is generous and well-respected, he is fanatically religious and tyrannical at home—a home that is silent and suffocating.
As the country begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili and Jaja are sent to their aunt, a university professor outside the city, where they discover a life beyond the confines of their father’s authority. Books cram the shelves, curry and nutmeg permeate the air, and their cousins’ laughter rings throughout the house. When they return home, tensions within the family escalate, and Kambili must find the strength to keep her loved ones together.
Purple Hibiscus is an exquisite novel about the emotional turmoil of adolescence, the powerful bonds of family, and the bright promise of freedom.