Hi there! I recently purchased a beautiful copy of this book from my local Waterstones store, and I started reading it straight away!
I don’t usually buy books without reading them first, but I’ve wanted to read some fiction by Adichie ever since I read and listened to ‘We Should All be Feminists.’ If you’ve not watched her Ted talk, click here for a link. Seriously, it’s well worth a look, and she’s a brilliant speaker 🙂
As soon as I started reading this book I was desperate to finish it so I could write a review on it, and I was even making notes as I went, something which is uncommon for me!
So, on with the review!
‘Purple Hibiscus’ follows the story of Kambili, a 15 year-old girl living in Nigeria during the time of a military coup. It’s a dangerous time for the country, but her home life is equally as dangerous. Despite her father being a wealthy humanitarian, he is abusive towards his family, using religion as a reason for beating and hurting his children, and his wife.
Early on in the book, Kambili’s mother miscarries as a result of her husband’s aggression, and his skewed view of religion makes it seem as though it is her fault. He also beats his children when they don’t come in first place in their class, and throughout the whole book the family are forced to walk on eggshells when he is in the house.
During Christmas time, the family travel to Abba for the holidays, as is tradition. There, Kambili, and her brother Jaja, meet their Aunty Ifeoma and their cousins. Kambili’s father disapproves of his sister, as she is still in contact with their father. Due to the fact that their father continues to practise in the traditional, ‘pagan’ ways, and has not converted to Catholicism like him, Kambili’s father will have no contact with him.
After this visit, Kambili and her brother go to visit their Aunt, staying a little longer than planned due to the military coup, and the danger it is causing. There, Kambili and Jaja are opened up to what it is like to live in a loving household, and the book basically focuses on their realisation that not every family is as oppressive as theirs, and the ways in which religion and the patriarchy rules their lives, following their many adventures along the way.
I really enjoyed this book, and I thought it was brilliantly written. While there weren’t loads of twists and turns, I thought it was written in an honest and brutal way, really putting across the oppression which faced Kambili, and the need for her to escape.
The fact that throughout the book she worshipped her father also showed the twisted kind of heroism he played in her life, and the way that his oppressive religion was ground into her.
The view of religion in this book was really interesting. While under her father’s rule, religion is something oppressive, and God is a being to be feared, with many of Kambili’s punishments being because she has somehow transgressed against God.
Even when her mother miscarries a child, they pray for the mother’s forgiveness, rather than the father’s guilt for having encouraged the miscarriage through his violent behaviour.
Catholicism, the Church and religion is certainly viewed as something to be obeyed without question, and is portrayed negatively. I thought it was interesting that Adichie used the way in which the father looked up to how ‘white people’ practised religion, clearly seeing much more faith in them than in his own Nigerian culture and traditions.
“”You are eating ten minutes before Mass? Ten minutes before Mass?”
“Her period started and she has cramps-” Mama said….
“Has the devil asked you all to go on errands for him?” The Igbo words burst out of Papa’s mouth. “Has the devil built a tent in my house?” He turned to Mama. “You sit there and watch her desecrate the Eucharistic fast, maka nnidi?”
He unbuckled his belt slowly.”
But when Kambili visits her Aunty, religion suddenly becomes something full of love, laughter and song. She experiences a completely different religion, where Nigerian tradition is celebrated, and everyone has freedom of thought and speech. This is what religion should be about. While both families practise Catholicism, the way Aunt Ifeoma expresses love and happiness is definitely the one the reader is drawn to.
One thing I loved about this book was the representation of the two families. On the one hand you have Kambili’s ‘home’- full of oppression and grief, and ruled by an oppressive patriarch. On the other you have Aunt Ifeoma, who has so little money, and double the amount of children, but everyone feels loved and safe and happy, and she rules the house as the ultimate matriarch, using Father Amadi for support and help when she needs it.
Kambili and Jaja soon realise that money isn’t everything, and although Aunt Ifeoma often does not have enough money to buy fuel for her car, she never fails to make her children happy, and to welcome Kambili and Jaja with open arms.
I absolutely loved Aunt Ifeoma and her children, Kambili’s cousins. They were funny, quirky and wholesome. Amaka, the same age as Kambili, is wary of her at first, as she resents the money Kambili has, and the fact that they have so little, but, after a crisis which affects Kambili, and sends the children back to their Aunt once more, she soon sees Kambili as an equal, and they become friends.
“”I’m sure this is nothing close to the sound system in your room in Enugu,” Amaka said. She pointed at the player at the foot of the dresser. I wanted to tell her I did not have any kind of music system in my room back home.”
Aunt Ifeoma’s house is depicted in a beautiful way- small and cosy, warm and bright, happy and alive. While Kambili’s household has lots of rooms and a working toilet, Aunt Ifeoma has created a place that can actually be called home.
The descriptions of Nigeria in this book were so beautiful, and I can’t get across how much Adichie makes you feel as if you are also on the market with Jaja, in the small house of Aunt Ifeoma, or walking through her beautiful garden, where you can find the rare purple hibiscus.
The sounds, the smells, the people and the atmosphere are depicted brilliantly, and Adichie manages to combine beautiful descriptions with a quick-paced and easy-to-read writing style. While not a lot happens in the book in terms of plot-line, the way it moves is free and easy, and I was kept hooked until the last page.
“Laughter always rang out in Aunty Ifeoma’s house, and no matter where the laughter came from, it bounced around all the walls, all the rooms.”
I loved the characters in this book so much. For me, relatable, interesting and life-like characters are what makes a book. Kambili as a narrator was fantastic. She had the innocence of a child, mixed with the growing knowledge of a young woman. Throughout the book she would express her feelings, come out of her shell, and begin to realise certain things about her family, her father and her mother, who would do anything for her husband, and yet was forced to live under his iron rule.
While living with her Aunt, Kambili becomes much more out-going. She is allowed to choose her own schedule for the first time, allowed to wear trousers instead of dresses, allowed to play football with the boys and allowed to help her Aunt do cooking. I loved watching the progression of Kambili, and the way she began to open up.
I also really liked Kambili’s brother, Jaja. As soon as they move to the Aunt’s house, he begins to change, relishing in the freedom to garden, and to do things that are not scheduled by his father. He really comes into his own, and as soon as he has been to his Aunt’s, he defies his father. It is clear that Kambili still feels loyal to her father, but Jaja begins to defy him, even refusing to go to Communion.
The character of Aunty Ifeoma was brilliant. She was loving and good, but also stressed, attempting to hold onto her position at the University in the face of the military coup. She was a strong woman, and she fought to keep the same curriculum, to tell the truth and to save Kambili and Jaja from their oppressive household, despite the fact that she clearly had no room, and no funds.
But as well as being a great woman, she was also real. She stood up for what she believed in, but she also considered the ‘coward’s’ way out. She welcomed the children, and yet she would have days where she would shout and cry and stress. This made her a real character, and one that filled the book with interest.
Kambili’s father is an age-old stereotype. Adichie used this character to perfectly show the problems with domestic abuse, and the inability of anyone to do anything about it. Kambili’s father is seen as brave, strong, important, wealthy and humanitarian.
He gives to the poor, and donates to charities, and he supports his church whole-heartedly, and the people love him. And yet he beats and terrorises his family, showing the way in which people are not all they seem, and how it was very difficult for Kambili’s mother to speak out against him- or to do anything about it.
The father’s character reminded me for some reason of the song by Carrie Underwood- ‘Church Bells.’ It’s a powerful song about what’s going on underneath the surface of a seemingly righteousness man, and the trouble women have speaking out against domestic abuse. You can find the song here.
“”I was reading somewhere that Amnesty World is giving your brother an award,” Father Amadi said. He was nodding slowly, admiringly, and I felt myself go warm all over with pride, with desire to be associated with Papa.”
Overall I loved this book. It placed me in the centre of the Nigerian culture, and the childrens’ time at Aunt Ifeoma’s was great to read about. The ending was also really good, and left me satisfied, and yet wanting more.
This book made me feel anger, pain, heartbreak and joy, and I hope you enjoy it if you give it a go. I really want to read more books set in Nigeria now- I might have to get Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s other fiction out from the library.
Thanks for reading! Have you read this book? Have you tried any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction? Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below!
Picture credits here