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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Purple Hibiscus

The basic plot of this novel can be summed up very simply. Father, rich, very religious, abusive, children/wife miserable. Children go to aunt who is poor, not very religious and more easy-going. Children happy. Of course, it is a bit more complicated than that but not much. The story is told by Kambili (stress on the first syllable). She has an older brother, Jaja. Both are in their teens. Their father is Eugene. Eugene has been very successful, having made a lot of money from his factories and also from his newspaper The Standard. However, he is Catholic and very religious. He believes that God’s word should be followed to the letter and it is his job to get rid of sin, particularly in his wife and children. The children, for example, have to follow a strict schedule every day, written out for them by their father. This involves study and prayer. They have little time for fun. They have no social life, no pop music, no TV and no sports. Any slight deviation from the norm – disobedience, failure to come top of the class or anything Eugene deems is a sin – is ruthlessly punished. Eugene is not only a violent man but justifies his violence as helping to purge sin. He has permanently damaged his son’s finger, twice he strikes his wife, causing her to have a miscarriage, and, during the course of the book, will put Kambili in hospital with a broken rib and, at one stage, fighting for her life. His opposition to what he calls paganism, i.e. the traditional religion of the country, is extreme. He reluctantly lets his children visit his father, who has stuck to the traditional religion, but only for a fifteen minute at a time and they must promise not to eat or drink in his company. He himself never visits his father, even when he is on his deathbed.

But Eugene is not all bad. He donates very generously to the church, for which he is continually praised by the priest. He supports numerous people financially, helping not only his relatives and employees but also many others in need. His paper, The Standard, stands up to the oppressive dictatorship in the country, for example, publishing articles about the government being complicit in corruption or the abduction and murder of a pro-democracy leader. Indeed, in the latter case, the paper pursues the issue to the extent that Nigeria is very much criticised abroad. The editor, Ade Coker, pays much of the price. He is arrested and imprisoned but Eugene fights very hard and gets him out. Eugene himself is both offered bribes and threatened but resists both. He will not be intimidated and is highly critical of the government. For his generosity and his courage in standing up to the government, he is revered everywhere, except in his own family.

During one episode when the paper is threatened and Eugene has moved the staff to a hidden location, it is decided that the children should go and stay with their aunt Ifeoma, Eugene’s sister, in Nsukka. Ifeoma is a widow who teaches at the University of Nigeria. However, for various reasons, the staff have not been paid for a while. Moreover, there is a shortage of many key items, such as fuel. Like her brother, she has a son and a daughter. Though she is somewhat religious, she is much more open-minded than her brother and gives her children much greater freedom. Indeed, her children are shocked that their cousins do not watch TV, listen to pop music, socialise, play football and do the other things that normal teenagers do. Eugene has sent them with a schedule but Ifeoma removes the schedule as soon as she discovers it and says that that is not allowed in her house. Initially, Kambili and Jaja do not fit in and their cousins think they are very odd. Gradually, with the influence of the local priest, they do start to adapt somewhat, till they are snatched away when Eugene learns that his father, who is ill, is staying in the house. However, when things get worse at home, both children and even their mother flee to Ifeoma’s. Meanwhile, Ifeoma is having troubles of her own, as she has not been afraid to speak out against both the national government and the university administration.

While Adichie tells her story well, it is somewhat monolithic. Eugene is so obviously someone we cannot help but despise that the good he seems to do in the community gets pushed into the background. Even though Kambili and her mother do seem to accept his behaviour or, at least, tolerate it (Jaja does, towards the end, stand up to his father), we cannot see them as anything but victims with Aunt Ofeoma as the knight in shining armour. Even though the ending is mildly (but only mildly) unexpected, much of the rest is thoroughly predictable and all we can do is wonder how much nastier can Eugene and the government respectively be?

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Fourth Estate