I read Chimamanda Adichie’s critically acclaimed first book, Purple Hibiscus, too many months late. Before then I’d heard so much about her. But nothing anyone had said prepared me for that first encounter with her on the pages of Purple Hibiscus. When I finally read the prize-winning novel I was simply spellbound.
Adichie’s storytelling is simply in the class of exotic art. Minimalistic, understated and measured, yet there is nothing skittish or timid about it.
Adichie gives you the impression of possessing a very collected mind with the way she presides over this story. She has an uncanny ability to raise serious issues and make important statements with a subdued but exacting tone. It’s in the way she relates the gory abuses a father metes on his own children without offending your sensibilities; it’s in the way she presents the politically tumultuous Nigeria under the military junta and the unrests of the university in euphemistic language, without compromising the seriousness of the matter. Her voice is like that of a sagely grandparent; forceful, firm, yet totally palatable.
Chimamanda Adichie’s storytelling doesn’t take anything for granted. It is amazingly detailed and to the morsel. She tells you why the light bulbs were on and how come there were worms in the bath tub; all the nitty-gritty that pulls you into the story yet doesn’t insult your intelligence.
But perhaps her most powerful literary mechanisms are her allegories: the étagère which is a symbol of the repressive, tyrannical reign of Kambili’s sanctimonious father; the purple hibiscus which represents freedom and change; her allegorical characters; and her tropes which knock you windless every single time with their originality and cheekiness. My favorite is the one in which Kambili relates how Papa prays for the conversion of his “heathen” father, “…so that Papa-Nnukwu would be saved from hell. Papa spent some time describing hell, as if God did not know that the flames of hell were eternal and raging and fierce.”
Chimamanda Adichie lightly challenges you to question her affectionate and seemingly spontaneous use of the Ibo language to spice up her writing, and without any apologies to you. And unless you want to fall in line behind the macabre Papa who believes that speaking Ibo language in public is uncivilized, you had best shut up.
Purple Hibiscus is the heart-breaking story of a young Nigerian family, which is itself a metaphor for Nigeria, under oppressive regimes. What makes it so crushingly sad is not so much the abuse of a masochistic father but the fact that Kambili, the 15 year old narrator’s voice is so innocent, so vulnerably pure that she appears to be trying to bring out the good in her abusive father. It’s as though she were begging you to look beyond his manipulative, sadistic, repressive self-righteousness to see that he was just a human being after all, with all the foibles and fears that plague all of us. Of course she does this inadvertently when she tries to elevate him to the status of a god of some sort, thus calling your attention to see what she isn’t saying.
Kambili’s father reminds one of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo in the award-winning Things Fall Apart – a man who takes himself too seriously, who attempts to be bigger than his chi; a man built from the onset to self-destruct. A great man to be pitied by lesser men, more the pity.
But Kambili’s voice is at once submissive, dutiful and sarcastic. A disposition which Adichie combines admirably and realistically in Kambili.
By contrast, her brother is a volcano waiting to erupt. Like the political climate of the times in which the novel is set, he is boiling underneath the calm surface.
However, it is the visit to Aunty Ifeoma’s that brings about the climax in the story. It is during their visit to Nsukka that the two have the opportunity to see another side to life, to dare to question the percepts of their up-bringing, and are allowed a first taste of freedom … It is at Aunty Ifeoma’s that the purple hibiscus first captivates them.
Their eventual emancipation comes about rather dramatically. It’s as though Papa has been sitting on a ticking time-bomb all the time when things fall apart.
Quite honestly, I am not very happy with the way the story ends. I was disappointed in Mama. I felt ashamed of the tacit coup and despised the freedom bought with such treachery. Just imagine Sisi and Mama and a native doctor as accomplices in the death of Papa. No, really, just imagine the three of them mentioned in one sentence!
I thought it such a shame.
I can’t help feeling that Papa was the real victim here, a victim of himself, too. I feel sorry for him.
I imagine I would have made the story end differently. I would have spared Papa alive – the villain we all love to hate. I would have made him look with his own eyes and see the recompense of the wicked, to borrow a line form the Good Book. I would make him watch his family defy him. And, perhaps break up. Then, maybe, just maybe, I would then permit him to die of a broken heart.
But then I do not suppose that that is the stuff award-winning novels are made of?
Anyway, Purple Hibiscus has had a very profound effect on me. For one thing, it makes me appreciate my childhood and all the things in it I have always taken for granted. I feel less envious of picture perfect neighbours, co-workers and friends, all the Jones (or Achikes) of this world. After all, who knows how many étagères have been silently polished behind those closed doors?
Well, for another thing, Purple Hibiscus has become my holy grail on how to write a first novel and make a sensational literary entrance.
I tell you, there’s a lot of genius concentrated in this one female. Now, I know she has a new book out, her third. It is a collection of short stories called The Thing Around Your Neck. Well, I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
Well done, Adichie!