Thursday, October 23, 2008

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
(c) 2003
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
307p

Purple Hibiscus is a coming of age story set in post-colonial Nigeria. Narrated by fifteen-year-old Kimbili, it is the story of the year things fell apart both in the turbulent political situation of a country teetering on the edge of civil war and in her family as the fragile facade of perfection her parents presented to the community shattered as thoroughly as the glass figurines in the etagere when hit by the heavy missal her father threw at her older brother Jaja after he had refused to partake of communion at church that Palm Sunday morning.

That was the scene set by the first paragraph. That was the event that alerted Kimbili to the realization that something had shifted irrevocably in the way of things. And when at lunch a few hours later, Jaja left the table before their father had said the closing prayer and she saw that the fear had left his eyes and was now in her father's she was so shook up she choked on her juice. Her brother's defiance seemed both shocking and yet inevitable. She reflects that its roots were in the visit the two of them had made to their father's sister's a few months before. "Jaja's defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma's experimental purple hibiscus, rare, fragrant with the untertones of freedom..." p16

Aunt Ifeoma was a University Professor and a widow with three children, the eldest two near the same ages of Jaja and Kambili. The contrast between the two households had been shocking to both siblings. Theirs had been a life secluded in a large house surrounded by a high wall and cushioned by their father's wealth and prestige. Their days had been strictly scheduled, communication among family members had been spare and ritualized. Their father had monitored their every move and doled out consequences for every infraction of his rigid rules. At Aunty Ifeoma's house it was noisy with talk and laughter flung about. The house was small and crowded and full of books and games. In the short time they were they both Jaja and Kambili had begun to bloom like the flowers in the garden outside the veranda that Jaja was learning to tend under Aunty's guidance.

Kambili traces the beginning of the trouble back even further though. Back to nearly a year before the Palm Sunday of the shattered figurines. Back to Pentecost of the previous spring. The day their mother miscarries after their father beat her. The day Kambili and Jaja had together cleaned up the trail of blood leading from the door of their parents room down the hall and down the stairs to the front door after watching their father carry their mother like a 'jute sack of rice' out of the house.

As events unfold within their household over that year there are political occurrences in their country that are equally fraught with fear and defiance. Like a fugue there is an echo between the inner sanctum of the family and the outer world as Nigeria undergoes it's latest military coup, as cultural and ethnic forces fissure the community.

Kambili's father is a respected, even revered, man of their community. He owns a factory and a newspaper. He is active in the Catholic Church. He is a generous benefactor to many individuals and causes. He is a promoter of free speech, defying the new government by continuing to publish exposes of governmental corruption.

But he is a man who requires obedience from his wife and children and his expectations are so high and so rigid there is really no way to fulfill them. His perfectionism and need for order is probably a tendency of his personality but a symbiotic dance exists between it and his religious beliefs and he cloaks much of his demands in the religious language of sin, repentance and forgiveness. He holds to a hard line fundamentalist doctrine that will not allow him to give quarter to even his own father who has 'stubbornly' continued in the traditional 'pagan' practices.

If I say much more about the story I will start to give away spoilers. I began reading this novel months ago while I was still working actively on my own story Home Is Where the Horror Is. I found the correspondences between Crystal's story and Kambili's eerie and it is quite possible that work on my story halted at least partly out of a sense of intimidation by Adiche's exquisitely wrought story. I really must learn to get over that tendency.
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This review is the first towards fulfilling the Herding Cats Challenge.

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