Reviewed by Simon
It might seem strange to include a novel in the reprints section that is only 13 years old – but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has recently had all of her books to date reprinted by 4th Estate with beautiful African prints for the covers, and it seemed like an excellent opportunity to acquaint myself with her first novel: Purple Hibiscus.
Everybody else got on the Adichie train years ago, but I only encountered her earlier in 2016 while reading Americanah. While her most recent novel is more ambitious and broader in scope than Purple Hibiscus, there are many of the same hallmarks in her debut – perhaps primarily the confident, sensitive storytelling.
At the centre of the novel, telling a first-person narrative, is fifteen-year-old Kambili. She lives with her father, mother, and brother Jaja in a wealthy home in their Nigerian community that is ruled by church and by politics. Her father, Eugene, is revered by the public world – the minister of their Catholic church always praises Eugene in his sermons; he is politically active – and bravely so – on the board of an underground newspaper – but there is a much darker world at home. Eugene is a harsh disciplinarian who believes he must use violent punishment to keep his children on the straight and narrow, claiming – believing? – that his acts of cruelty are for their own good, and steering them closer to God. He is even more violent to his quiet wife, and early in the novel we learn that she has suffered at least one miscarriage as a result of his beatings.
What is so powerful about the novel (and I did think it was extraordinarily good, despite one reservation that I’ll discuss in a minute) was the way we saw this violence and the experience of continual fear: it was just life for Kambili. Children always see their own upbringing as ‘normal’, because that is all they understand. Kambili is not outraged at her father’s actions because they form the framework of all she knows. Instead, she tries to find the right things to say and do to make sure he has no ‘reason’ to be violent. We watch in sad horror as she ‘victim-blames’ herself, with her only solace the unspoken empathy she has with Jaja and her mother (who always polishes her china figurines after a beating).
That reservation? Well, my early problems with Purple Hibiscus were similar to those I felt about Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. By making a religious character a cruel ogre, it did feel like a too-familiar path being trodden. Yes, some people who profess faith also commit domestic violence and child abuse, and it is appalling; I do wish that the world of fiction more often recognised those people of faith who act in accordance to Jesus’ teachings, with love, mercy, kindness, and devotion.
So what saved Adichie? She never grew as hyperbolic as Kingsolver – in her novel, there is no point at all, because she has chosen an outlier as her representative – but what really offset this dynamic was Adichie’s willingness to include people of faith who acted differently: specifically Aunty Ifeoma. Eugene has a very strained relationship with his (Christian) sister, and none at all with his father, who still observes pagan practices. Somehow, Ifeoma persuades her brother to permit Kambili and Jaja to visit her and see their cousins. The reader feels as though they have walked out of darkness and into light. Adichie is so excellent at conveying atmosphere that I did feel the weight of fear lift, as we start to watch the family here interact. They are much poorer, but much happier. Ifeoma is a university lecturer, and her children Amaka, Obiora, and Chima are relaxed and confident. They are still not allowed to be disrespectful to their mother or other elders, but the lines for disrespect are drawn much further away. Kambili observes her relatives in near-silent astonishment, taking everything in, realising for the first time, perhaps, that her experiences aren’t inevitable. The purple hibiscus of the title flowers outside Ifeoma’s house, and comes to symbolise the new world Kambili has seen.
There are no simple solutions at this stage, and Adichie takes us back and forth between the two houses on several occasions. There’s also the backdrop of Nigeria’s military coup, and the possibility of Ifeoma moving to the promised land of America (its brief mentions seem almost to set the scene for Americanah). It’s a complex novel that manages to come together into a simple story – and it’s that simplicity that makes me like Purple Hibiscus even more than Americanah. I very much admire the ability to write a linear novel that pulls the reader in deeply, creating something perfectly whole and entire.
It truly is an astonishing debut, and – had I only been paying attention at the time – it would have shown me the arrival of a great novelist. I’m rather behind the times now, but in case there are any others like me out there, I very much recommend these new editions of her work. Not only are the covers beautiful, but the thick-card wraparound covers are lovely to hold, and the whole object is sumptuous. It’s just as well I didn’t buy her books before in other editions, because I rather suspect I need to complete the set now.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (4th Estate: London, 2016). 978-0008205218, 307pp., paperback.
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