Purple Hibiscus is an assured and impressive debut from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: what a difference between it and the other first novel that I just finished reading, The Very Thought of You. There are none of the first novel jitters in Adichie's work: the plot and pacing are excellent; the story crescendos at exactly the right moment, her prose is bright, lively and interesting; and, layers upon layers of fascinating observations exist between the essence of "family" and the breakdown of the "state" as Nigeria becomes subjected to a military coup.
Kambili and her brother Jaja, along with their mother, Beatrice, live in constant fear of their father, Eugene, a complex, difficult and deeply religious man. His Catholic faith sustains him, but it also represses his family, creates a power vacuum, and ultimately results in some of the most gut-wrenching violence (not related to a crime novel) I've read in a long, long time. Eugene rules his household with an iron fist, one clasped entirely to a rosary, and when his wife or children stray -- whether it's to talk to or see their "heathen" grandfather or to not become first in their class -- the consequences are dire. The children, aged 15 and 17, live in constant fear of their father's fists, his belt, his whip, and there's no telling exactly what will set him off. Set against his rigid rules and regulations, Kambili and her brother find a few weeks of freedom when they go to visit their aunt, Eugene's sister, Ifeoma. The time they spend with her changes them forever.
The backdrop of the family drama is set against a military coup happening in Nigeria. It's fascinating that Eugene, so brave (he runs a newspaper as well as owns a number of factories that make food) in his intentions to resist the powers of the regime. He refuses to bribe the police officers, sends his newspaper editor into hiding, and remains incredible generous to the people who work for him. Yet, when it comes to his family, he simply can not see that subjecting them to the extreme Catholic values that he believes, in his heart, will save his and their souls, through the violence and an extreme restriction of their basic human rights echoes the very nature of dictatorship. I think this dichotomy, for me, strikes a cord that resonates throughout the entire novel.
Kambili can't speak without stuttering, doesn't smile, lives in constant fear of her father's punishment, but she also loves him, as a daughter would. Her father's violence whether it's towards her, her brother or her mother, is simply another facet of everyday life. In a sense, I think this is why her voice feels so much younger than 15 -- she's suspended in a strange, awkward childhood, and only begins to blossom when she stays with her aunt and sees how normal teenage girls act. Kambili's a lovely character -- bright, intense, open, honest -- and when you feel her father's blows upon her back, you want to cry out for her to run away, to fight back, and when she finally does, it's a revelation.
There's so much to love about this novel, the setting, the way Adichie uses traditional language, the explanations of food, of their daily lives, and the rich landscape soiled, in a way, by the corruption that's all around. Violence, at home or by the state, is an everyday part of life, yet Kambili can still see the beauty in a simple, special purple hibiscus. It's an impressive thing to not have your spirit broken -- something I admire intensely about this book, and something that I strive for in my own everyday life. And even when things are truly, truly horrible, there's still a goodness in Kambili that can't be broken, scarred maybe, but even those find a way to heal eventually.
READING CHALLENGES: Around the World (Nigeria) and Off the Shelf.
WHAT'S NEXT: I'm on "A" from my 1001 Books shelf, so I started reading Emma this morning. I love that I have spread out the Austen to read in my lifetime. I would be sad if I had already read them all. I'm exited I still have three to go.