Last book club read for this year before we regroup in January, Purple Hibiscus is an engaging and beautifully written coming-of-age story set in postcolonial Nigeria. Its heroine, Kambili, is a shy and timid 15-year-old girl growing up within the confines of her wealthy family, ruled by her devoutly religious, authoritarian, verbally and physically abusive father Eugene. When Kambili and her brother Jaja get a chance to spend time with their liberal aunt Ifeoma and her children, freed from Eugene’s oppressive regime, Kambili slowly begins to find her confidence and her own voice.
The story happens against the backdrop of political strife and civil unrest in Nigeria, but while some political themes and observations seep through, the book is primarily a personal story about the changes Kambili and her family go through. The quality I appreciated the most about Adiche’s writing is restraint. In places, the story takes dramatic turns that, in a different book, would have taken centre stage and tempted the writer to get really carried away with the melodrama, but Purple Hibiscus never follows that path. The suffocating and fearful atmosphere of Kambili’s household earlier in the novel is palpable, but it’s conveyed mostly through Kambili’s matter-of-fact observations and hints of unarticulated, terrible things happening, though later on there’s a stark account of an unbearably cruel scene of punishment that made me gasp out loud. The joys of freedom in Aunty Ifeoma’s house are likewise naturally and quietly observed, without feeling like the book is flashing obvious neon signs at you. Though the ending is cautiously optimistic and Kambili grows into a far more confident young woman, you get the sense that she hasn’t even began to truly process what’s been going on in her family, and that working through the trauma might take her a very long time.
Adiche does a wonderful job with writing characters that feel complicated and realistic. It’s an awful fact of life that people can inflict terrible suffering on those they genuinely love and want the best for. As appalling as Eugene is, it’s also clear that his cruelty is the product of the cruelty once inflicted on him, and the terrifying family despot is also the man who speaks truth against the government and shows immense generosity to the wider community. I could understand why, despite everything, Kambili craved her father’s love and wanted to make him proud. The book is also rich with the texture and detail of everyday life in Nigeria, with the local Igbo words sprinkled generously throughout. I don’t know why, but I find something exciting about seeing the mentions of the thrillingly unfamiliar meals and foods in fiction.