Purple Hibiscus (2003) is the story seen through the eyes of a young girl, Kambili (KAM bi lee) of a small Nigerian family, her older brother, Jaja, Mama, and her wealthy and very Christian Papa, told in deceptively simple English. Most stories have a villain and this story certainly has one: him. And some stories with a villain have a villian’s mate: a second-in-command, or a side-kick, or, as in this case, a manipulator, here it is the Christian god. The two of them make a formidable pair.
Papa is a prominent citizen and a fundamentalist Christian. Everything about the Christian god to Papa is good and right. If it is right to thank god briefly for the food they are about to eat then it must be better to thank him for twenty minutes. Although from humble and heathen beginnings, he now owns several biscuit factories and a radical newspaper that puts him and his family in danger from the military autocratic government. Yes, He’s not all bad.
It is the time of political unrest in Nigeria and opens with the boy, Jaja, being castigated strongly by his father for not taking communion, that Sunday, Palm Sunday. It is the first time the boy has openly defied his father. ‘The priest keeps touching my mouth and it nauseates me,’ Jaja explained tersely. His father said, ‘You cannot stop receiving the body of our Lord. It is death, you know that.’ ‘Then I will die,’ came the boy’s calm reply. His father is speechless and so throws the prayerbook across the room. That was when ‘things started to fall apart’. That line opens the book. It is reminiscent, and likely in honour of, Nigeria’s literary hero, Chinewa Achebe, whose debut novel, Things Fall Apart (1958) became an early beacon of postcolonial writing – giving ‘the other’ a voice – depicting the tumultuous and destructive effect of colonialism and Christianity on the proud Igbo nation.
Kambili does not know the world, or domestic chores; she does not talk much, afraid the words would not come out, and if they did, afraid they would be the wrong words and Papa would be angry. She comes 2nd in her school exams when she usually comes first. Papa is very angry; he makes her stand in the bathtub and pours boiling water over her bare feet. She does not look at people’s skin below their necks, Papa would be angry. During Papa’s twenty minute grace she can not move, Papa would be angry. She can not speak to her grandfather, Papa Nnukwu, because he is a heathen; she closes her eyes so she won’t see her brother Jaja touch their grandfather; so Papa won’t be angry at her. The revelation of Papa’s violence sneaks up on you. The first morning bruises on Mama’s face are described as innocently as one might describe a waking woman yawning and rubbing her eyes or the morning rays of the sun through the mango trees dappling the lawn in front of the house.
Kambili’s life is dominated by the Christian god and Papa’s unflinching devotion to him. It is implied that Kambili doesn’t think of god as her god, but Papa’s god.
There are similarities here with novelistic depiction of Irish domestic life, like the stories and novels of John McGahern: a dominating, god-fearing and violent father who punishes children and his wife for perceived Christian misdeeds, punishment to make them see that their deeds takes them away from god, punishment for their own good, to bring them back to god. A self-defeating idea.
This all changes when, because of a military coup, he allows the two children to spend a few days with Papa’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, and her three children in a poor village some distance away. Aunty Ifeoma is also a Christian but her pre-meal grace is a comfortable number of seconds. Kambili is shocked, but even more shocked when Aunty Ifeoma ends her grace with a prayer for singing and daily laughter. Papa would be angry. Kambili did not know that laughter was something you could pray for.
Aunty Ifeoma is a lecturer at the local university but she is poor: lecturers have not been paid for many months. She and her three children eat a lot of boiled yams and her daily routine is dictated by the usual scramble for fuel for her rusty car.
Eventually Kambili and Jaja are forced back to their father’s estate; all their dreams and friendships they have to leave behind, but they return with the knowledge that family life can be soft, adults can be kind, Igbo songs can be sung while peeling yams, laughter can be allowed without punishment, and that the moist sticks of the purple hibiscus from Aunty Ifeoma’s garden carry their hope that they will take root, grow, and produce their magnificent purple blooms in the garden of Papa’s austere mansion.
You will have to read this book to find out if all or any of these things do indeed ‘bloom’.
One of the joys of fiction is that it takes you to different places, cultures, times, and beliefs. This one certainly does.
You can buy the book in various formats here.
Here is a video of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche giving the 2019 Yale Class Day speech. Also you can watch the video of her speech at the graduation ceremony of the Harvard class of 2018.