a Book Review by Isabelle Feilchenfeldt
The Purple Hibiscus is one of the most beautiful yet haunting books I have ever read. Its protagonist is Kambili, 15, a young teenage girl who lives in post-colonial Nigeria in the late 1960s, together with her brother Jaja, 17, her mother Beatrice and her father Eugene. Even though the family is very well off and they live a privileged life, it quickly becomes clear that everything isn’t as wholesome as it seems.
Kambili loves her father dearly and looks up to him as her role model. He holds a high position in the Catholic faction, owns several factories, a newspaper and he is very respected in their community. Thus, this admiration seems only natural. However, in the name of his Christian faith, he commits atrocious abuses against his wife and children. Whilst the outside world worship him and don’t suspect a thing, he beats and punishes his family within the walls of their carefully guarded complex, to protect them from sin.
This novel is remarkable on a multitude of levels. One example is their family life. Even though their father/husband abuses them, he is still an idol for them with Kambili’s obsessive need to make her father proud being shown over and over again. Beatrice, Kambili’s mother, also refuses to leave her husband for a long time even though Aunty Ifeoma begs her to do so over and over again. The family loyalty which we observe is both fascinating and incomprehensible at the same time.
Furthermore, the description of life in Nigeria under the new government is extremely interesting and almost unprecedented. The shortage of food and fuel, the government bribery and the punishment of Ade Coker all show how oppressive life is for the population. Whilst Eugene is mainly affected through censorship, but little else, ordinary people suffer a lot more due to the lack of basic resources. We witness this when the children visit Aunty Ifeoma and there is a constant struggle for fuel.
Thirdly, Kambili’s transformation into womanhood is another important development. At the beginning of the book, she is still a child, even if her body is more developed. She hides behind Jaja and we watch her involuntary isolation from her school peers painstakingly. When Kambili and Jaja go visit Aunty Ifeoma and are in the presence of her daughter Amaka and her eldest son Obiora, the difference in maturity between Kambili and Amaka and Jaja and Obiora are shown extensively. Only through their visit to Aunty Ifeoma, do both Kambili and Jaja begin to grow up and find their own way.
Kambili’s love for Father Amadi also plays a big role in her transformation. It is the first time she has experienced anything of the kind, and it allows her to experience a whole new range of emotions and freedom.
Nevertheless, the most prominent theme in the book is religion. Whilst it is easy to hate Kambili’s father for the crimes he commits against his family, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie manages to evoke a sense of sympathy or at least understanding for his actions. One of the most gruesome scenes in the book is when Eugene finds out that their grandfather Papa-Nnukwu was living in the same house as Kambili and Jaja during their stay with Aunty Ifeoma. As punishment, he places both of his children into their bathtub and pours boiling water over their feet. Reading this passage was horrifying, however, what disturbed me the most was the description of Eugene crying whilst punishing Kambili. He repeatedly says that he is doing this for them, to prevent them from going to hell. It is here that we realise that the situation is a lot more complex than a simple domestic assault. Kambili’s father truly believes that he is doing the right thing to save his children from a much worse fate. Thus, even though we know what he is doing is wrong, how can he be brought to understand this?
Whilst sleeping under a roof with a heathen such as Papa-Nnukwu is an offence against God and therefore we understand Eugene’s reason, Eugene punishes his family for much less. Another horrible example is Jaja’s crippled finger or Kambili’s mother being beaten bloody for asking to stay in the car because of her morning sickness. Because of these random outbursts, one reads the book in constant suspense and fear of what might happen next.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing style is kept fairly simple which makes this book an easy read. However, the subject which it covers is all but easy to accept and digest. We understand that this book is fictional but could be a reality for many people living in these conditions. It deals with a variety of human rights issues that have been eradicated in most of the West, but not everywhere in the world, thus making this book extremely important.