"Things started to fall apart...". This is how Purple Hibiscus begins, as a clear reference to Chinua Achebe's book: Things Fall Apart. Achebe is an acclaimed Nigerian writer, the hero and the man who inspired Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, to become a writer.
Adichie is now herself a hero for many people and I consider her my inspiration and my educator. My first contact with her was through her praised novel Americanah. When I read it, my brain exploded and my heart grew bigger because I finally got to understand things that I was oblivious to until then. I can still remember the impact of the opening chapters in me, describing Ifemelu's visit to the hairdresser. That scene may be very mundane, but it still made me understand more about the life of an African woman than all the books and documentaries I have seen about the topic.
Then I read Half of a Yellow Sun and once again I was learning with her. They never taught me about Biafra in history class. But Adichie did, showing me the power a political and religious war can have on people, regardless of their social and economic status. But it also showed me the impact of the resilience of women.
I saw her TEDTalks about “The Danger of a Single Story” and “We Should All Be Feminists” (and read the book with the same title). I read Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I went to the Forum of the Future in November 2019, in my home city, Porto, Portugal, where she was invited as a speaker to talk about feminism. And in every moment I was - and I am - more amazed by her, with her intelligence, values, and her eloquence. She's unquestionably my ultimate role model.
So my next step was very obvious: to read Purple Hibiscus, her debut novel.
Purple Hibiscus is a coming of age story. It revolves around fifteen-year-old Kambili and her family that lives a privileged life in Nigeria. Everything seems perfect for them and they are a respected family in society. But sometimes things are not what they look like and that is what Kambili shares with us little by little. In her low voice and good manners, we realize how her home can be very suffocating, where everyone is afraid of the good-hearted Papa Eugene, who turns out to be a fanatically religious and violent man.
In the meantime, there is a military coup in the country, and Kambili and Jaja, her older brother, are sent to the house of their aunt Ifeoma and three cousins. There is a big contrast to what they are used to since their aunt and cousins fearlessly express their opinions, listen to music and watch TV, and—what surprises Kambili and Jaja the most—they laugh a lot. It's in this caring and kind environment that both Kambili and Jaja become happier and resolute.
Coming of age stories are my thing, and this one is told in such a sensible, but authentic way. Kambili's growth happens at a slow pace but suited to her personality, coming from a place of worry and silence to being capable of being honest about her feelings. It is a pleasure to be part of her development, and that is heavily influenced by other characters. Her platonic relationship with Father Amadi, who is the first person to recognize her as such, is told delightfully and sensitively. Her relationship with her cousin Amaka is also delicious since its a growing one between two different personalities, but with a common affection and respect.
Adichie’s superpower lies in her ability to write about pressing subjects with all the seriousness they deserve and without romanticizing it. Purple Hibiscus touches on religion and it's represented in the form Kambili and her brother and mother live, always afraid of committing sins. She even talks about that feeling of horror, narrating:
“Fear. I was familiar with fear, yet each time I felt it, it was never the same as the other times, as though it came in different flavors and colors.”
Nevertheless, Papa Eugene embodies better the polarities of religion, trying to be truthful to Catholic values to the outside world, but being violent in the name of God to his family, showing that the most fervorous religious people sometimes don’t live accordingly to their beliefs. This abusive environment and the atmosphere of living within it was captured so well that it made the reading experience difficult at times.
Eugene’s fanatical Catholicism is due to a great influence of colonialism and his education at a Catholic mission school in Nigeria and in England thereafter. Eugene is so absolutist in his faith that he only allows the use of English in church practices, he refuses to have any contact with his father, whom he labels a ‘heathen’, and is very strict, having no mercy for those who commit sins.
Papa Nnukwo’s pre-colonial traditional religion is more generous and forgiving than his son’s Catholicism, as his prayers for his loved ones include the son who has rejected him. But this religion is also sexist. For example, when Papa Nnukwo prays for his daughter, he asks that she find a good man to take care of her and her family. But when she listens to it, she says she instead aspires to a promotion in her career.
Father Amadi and Aunty Ifeoma represent a sort of blend between the two extremes. As a priest, Father Amadi attempts to make Catholicism relevant for the Nigerians, using the Igbo language and songs and changes some church practices to make the spiritual experience more appealing.
While you're reading, you begin to think which one is better. The author shows us that all of them have their flaws, but reveals Ifeoma’s and Papa-Nnukwu’s religion in a much kinder light than Eugene’s.
There is another religious theme in the book, the one Kambili and her brother have for their Papa. Since they have grown up seeing their father as a god and changing their Catholic faith to the one presented by their aunt Ifeoma and Father Amadi, where they find a place of acceptance, it means losing their faith in Papa, but never love for him.
In Purple Hibiscus you too get a glimpse of what is living in Nigerian reality, through the descriptions of traditional food, the smells, and using Igbo expressions. There is a feeling of authenticity and believability to this novel and a good-feel message, where you realize there is a freedom when you get to live other realities and how important it is to get out of your "house".
But I have to be honest, this book wasn't so ambitious and didn't impact me so much as Half of Yellow Sun and Americanah. Despite being a strong novel and thought-provoking, the later books are more mature and tell stories that in addition to affecting characters, influence an entire society, race and/or gender, with a greater sense of cause.
Adichie doesn't disappoint, that's a thing you can't do when you write with such a passion. But if you're new to Adichie's world—and buuuuuh to you, how is that possible?—I would recommend you to read her books in the order of publication, so you can develop your reading experience simultaneously with the author's growing.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
336 pages. 2005.
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