Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, is the story of a family that is seemingly perfect on the outside with their own conflicts behind closed doors. Kambili and her older brother, Jaja, are the children of a wealthy businessman in Enugu, Nigeria. Their father, Eugene, is a faithful member of his church and known for being charitable in his community. However, his family sees another side of him when they do not meet his expectations. Kambili and Jaja are given the opportunity to experience a different life when they stay with their aunt who shows them their father is not always right.
It was interesting to observe the family dynamics. I think this story served as an example of the impact one member can have on the entire household. Everyone is operating with the thought of how to make sure their words or actions do not fall out of the line of the standard Eugene expects, causing immense stress and fear. Adichie does not automatically come out and say the characters are scared but uses actions and to build tension in these moments.
Choosing Kambili as the first-person narrator added both clarity and complexity. There was clarity in understanding the different facets of her personality, but complexity in her feelings toward her father. Like many children, she wanted to receive her father’s praises, but they did not have an ideal father-daughter relationship. It was not the kind of relationship where she could go to him to discuss her problems or even have real conversations. While she recognized his wrongdoings, he was still her father.
At 15 years old, Kambili was in the middle of adolescence and I was interested
in seeing how this shaped her views. Despite her strict upbringing, she had
similar desires as her peers but has not been allowed to express them nor had
the time to really think about them. Although she is a teenager, I would not
consider this to be a young adult or YA book. The subject matter and voice of
the narrator is suitable for older readers. I think regardless of age, people
can relate to or empathize with this story.
Purple Hibiscus is a beautiful and impactful coming of age story with themes of family, faith, friendship, and self-growth among others. For me, reading Kambili’s story was akin to watching the metamorphosis of a butterfly and I enjoyed reading how she gained her wings.
Spoiler Alert- The discussion section of my reviews contain my opinions about specific parts of the story with quotes. Reading this section before reading the story may spoil plot elements. Read at your own discretion.
Eugene was not raised Catholic but became so after spending time with missionaries and embracing the religion. There was not very much information about this, but the little information given was enough for me to become frustrated. Father Amadi’s appearance surprised Kambili because he was young, and his style of dress was atypical of what she saw at her own church. Father Amadi also spent time with the young people in church and visited people’s homes. He also had a more easy-going nature than Father Benedict, who pried a confession out of Kambili after speaking with her father. There is very little information given about Eugene’s early experiences in Catholicism, but one story he told Kambili was quite disturbing. Rather than recognizing how inappropriate the punishment was, he repeated it with his own children. People within the same religion practice in different ways, but it is important to recognize when the line has been crossed.
One particular event in the story that caught my attention was when Eugene grew upset when he saw Kambili eating before mass. While I understand they were to fast before mass, Kambili was only eating to counteract pain medication she had taken for period cramps. Her father should have been more understanding of this, but he was less focused on her health and more concerned with the fast. If it were that serious, she could have asked for forgiveness when she gave her confession, but Eugene’s reaction was too extreme in this instance.
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?”
At first, I was confused by Amaka’s dislike for Kambili. I soon realized it was a combination of jealousy and misinterpretation. Amaka constantly made remarks about her cousin thinking she was better than them or how she must not be satisfied with their home because it was not as fancy as her own. Most of this was directed at Kambili rather than at both her and Jaja. It did not take Jaja long to get accustomed with staying with his aunt, but Kambili’s silent observation must have looked judgmental in Amaka’s eyes. Kambili was being a bit judgmental, but not in a rude way. She was just surprised by how different everything was at her aunt’s home in comparison to her own.
I found the teasing very annoying, but Kambili was able to find her voice because of it by standing up to her cousin when she had enough. Amaka is the first girl Kambili has ever spent extended time with and she seems fascinated with how she interacts with her friends or even the fact that she wears lipstick. Amaka is talkative and outgoing like her mother. She is like many teen girls and perhaps the kind of girl Kambili could have been under different circumstances.
“I’m sure you think Nsukka is uncivilized compared to Enugu,” she said, still looking in the mirror. “I told mom to stop making you both come here.”
My feelings about Aunty are much more positive than those of her brother. She was like an angel for that family. She knew the kids were going through a lot at their house and suggested they visit her to get a break. She was also aware that their mother, Beatrice had suffered greatly from her brother’s actions and made attempts to save her from him. Beatrice and Ifeoma were still close despite Eugene’s lack of encouragement for the relationship. Aunty Ifeoma refers to Beatrice as ‘Nwunye m’, meaning ‘our wife’. Beatrice explained that this is a show of acceptance into the family.
I loved Aunty Ifeoma’s reaction to the schedules their father gave them before they left for their trip. She just laughed as if it were the most ridiculous thing in the world and took them.
“If you do not tell Eugene, eh, then how will he know that you did not follow the schedule, gbo? You are on holiday here and it is my house, so you will follow my own rules.”
Had Ifeoma not taken an interest in her niece and nephew, they would not
have seen the beauty of a purple hibiscus. They would not have smiled as much and Kambili may not have known the sound of her own laughter.
The process of forming your own beliefs or interests is a huge part of adolescence. Kambili and Jaja were never free to explore this at home and the freedom they found at Aunty Ifeoma’s was very refreshing. Let me know what you thought of this story in the comment section!