Thursday, 21 April 2011

Chimamanda Adichie: PURPLE HIBISCUS – A Review

Title : Purple Hibiscus
Author: Chimamanda Adichie
Publisher: Fourth Estate, London
Year of Publication/Edition: 2009
Purchased From Amazon

I had no idea of what to expect from Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. However, there was one thing I was clear about after reading her two later works: Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck  -  I was in for an experience of storytelling heaven. The first thing that one notices about Adichie is her style, her language. It is like she is talking to me. It is accessible, lyrical and sophisticated. It is sophisticated because it is what it says on the surface, yet it runs deep. A simple phrase gets one thinking: “I wondered when Papa would draw a schedule for the baby…Papa liked order” (P.23)

The structure is well executed. We start from the point of rebellion and then work our way backwards and forward again. This works because Adichie wastes no time in quickly confronting us with the issues albeit in that understated style of hers. She tells us enough to keep us in the flow while dropping little bombs along the way. The point of view is appropriate in style and tone. The story is told in the fifteen year old voice of Kambili. Readers are introduced to her brother Jaja, ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’. It is clear from the outset that all is not well in the Achike household. Kambili tells us in the first few opening lines:

“Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère. We had just returned from church”. (P.3)

Kambili continues later in matter of fact fashion to let us know that the heavy missal was meant for Jaja but it missed him completely. The reader is immediately invited into a world – Kambili’s world and that of her family - where violence and religious fervour collide and make good bedfellows. The love affair between these two subjects is made the more potent because ‘Papa’ is a big man. He is a factory owner and newspaper publisher who bank rolls the local church with generous donations and is always the first to receive communion along with his family. Papa’s ritual of a ‘love sip’ where he invites both Kambili and Jaja to sip boiling hot tea is unsettling because it is a taste of things to come. Like Kambili said: “I knew that when the tea burned my tongue, it burned Papa’s love into me” (p.8). Then there is the jaw-dropping minute by minute control that Papa exerts over the Achike household 24/7. Adichie excels at easing out each of those bombs on us in a matter of fact way. Kambili casually mentions Papa’s time allocation to the task of school uniform washing:

“We always soaked tiny sections of fabric in the foamy water first to check if the colours would run, although we knew they would not. We wanted to spend every minute of the half hour Papa allocated to uniform washing” (P.19) 

The ‘matter of fact’ normality of domestic violence in the Achike household and the fear this breeds as well as the physical and psychological impact of such violence is what is undeniably unnerving about this book. The fear is evident in their minds, their thoughts, the things that are not said but felt - The fear that makes Kambili and Jaja develop a secret language where they talk with their eyes. And when Mama is pregnant (we’re told she’s had miscarriages before), Jaja says to Kambili: “We will take care of the baby; we will protect him” (P.23). But they could not, of course. Kambili describes ‘swift, heavy thuds on her parents’ hand-carved bedroom door’. She tries hard to ‘imagine that the door had become stuck and Papa was trying to open it’ and then she counts because ‘counting made it not seem that long, that bad’. This is after Papa finishes his special prayer for ‘people who tried to thwart God’s will’ – because Mama was feeling sick earlier on and did not think she could follow her husband and children to visit Father Benedict. The result of Papa’s prayer is heavy thuds behind closed doors followed by a trickle of blood, with Mama slung over Papa’s shoulder like a jute sack of rice. This is juxtaposed with the idea of domestic violence usually hidden from view. Kambili and Jaja are witnesses after the event.  Such is the nature of domestic violence and it is no accident that Adichie tells the story in a way that is unnervingly realistic. Domestic violence often happens behind closed doors with the effects later seen.

Papa (Brother Eugene Achike) is a man with two faces: One as a loving family man and public benefactor; the other as a terrifying, violent and fanatically religious monster who runs his household with the baton of fear and force. He is so repulsive a character that we desperately want to see him get his just desserts after the horrifying unspeakable hot water incident and later when Kambili ends up in hospital. Mama (Sister Beatrice Achike) initially seems to us a timid character but we soon find that still waters run deep. We have no idea until it hits us. But then someone else has to pay a hefty price so that they can all move on with the promise of breaking free from the past.

The heaviness of violence and religious dogma in the Achike household is balanced with love from the extended family – The love and care of Papa’s sister, aunty Ifeoma. Aunty Ifeoma becomes synonymous with the freedom and vibrancy of her purple hibiscus as she along with her children show Kambili and Jaja a different way to live. Father Amadi , a young priest and family friend is a fine specimen of psychologically healthy manhood when he takes an interest in Kambili and helps her break free from the warped admiration she has of her father. He is a mirror that shows up all that ‘Papa’ should be but is not.

The role of women in Igbo society and the patriarchal dominance of men is one that is evident. At least in this particular household, a woman is seen as subservient. Such suppression is portrayed as dangerous as there are limits to human endurance.

Press freedom - the lack of it - is explored as well as the political landscape of a military Nigeria. Brother Eugene’s only redeeming quality is that he ‘cares’ about the common man and the freedoms of civil society. And this is the irony – a man who cares so much about God and public freedoms but gags his household with fear and violence, and rejects his ‘heathen’ father. Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is storytelling gold.    



Naijamum in L. said...

Thanks for this review Adura.
I have read this book and I was impressed by the maturity Chimamanda displayed - in tackling serous issues.

Myne Whitman said...

I look forward to seeing you review a book you didn't like so much.

Though her last book was so-so for me, Chimamanda's first two are really good, and I just convinced Atala to give her a try.

os said...

I started reading this book but never finished it. It just didn't take off with me.

I did finish "Half of a Yellow Sun" and that was quite good.

How would you compare her to Buchi Emecheta, both Igbo - though they're arguably from two different generations?

Adura Ojo said...

@ Naijamum
Thanks for your feedback, Naijamum. There is definitely something to be said about the maturity evident in Adichie's storytelling.

@ Myne Whitman
LOL. Strictly speaking I'm off the hook on that one, Myne. This blog only showcases the best:) That is in fact the ethos of this blog. That said, if there were bits of a book that could be better, I would say so, of course.

I agree on 'Things Around' not being as enticing as Adichie's first two books. But I still loved it. It just left one wanting a little bit more at the end of each short story - but I guess short stories do feel like that at times.
Re: Atala - so you might have got Adichie a new fan;)

Adura Ojo said...

@ OS
Your perspective on this is interesting. What was it that put you off - in your view? I really wouldn't want to choose between the two books. I guess if I really had to choose, Half would be my favourite simply because the main characters were better developed.

Re: comparison to Buchi Emecheta, they are both brilliant writers. Buchi obviously draws more from her own personal experiences. They both explore the role of women in Igbo culture but Buchi writes more from a feminist perspective: the empowerment and emancipation of women. I've only read one of Buchi's books (Second class Citizen) but I know from reading reviews of her other works that this is a general theme in her books. I will be reviewing SCC soon, so watch this space:) I would also love to interview her...if I can get her email address.

os said...

I really can’t put my finger on it. It may have to do more with the attitude I took into reading it. I kept waiting for the “ha-ha” moment but never got there. It’s been over 2 years but maybe I could try reading it again and perhaps will get a better feel for it.

Perhaps there’s a general preference for the Half book, though. When we asked our students to review novels by any African writer, I noticed that the only ones who reviewed Adichie chose Half.

Re Buchi: Perhaps contact her publishers for her e-mail? If you do manage to get a hold of her, could you please express our heartfelt condolences on the loss of two of her daughters? Considering her novels were quite personal and introduced us to her family, it was quite sad to learn of their passing.

And if we could ask her just one cheeky question (and again, it’s because her stories were quite personal), why didn’t she marry one of her characters – the former classmate who kept her company for many years in England before leaving for the States for his PhD in Engineering? He waited so long…).

Adura Ojo said...

@ OS
Reading it again sounds like a good idea. I'd bet you any good book of your choice that when you get to the hot water incident - that will be your a-ha moment if you don't get it before then;)

Not many ha-ha moments though (here I come again with my dreadful puns - feel free to groan, lol) cos domestic violence as we all appreciate is a pretty heavy subject to write about. And that might be why you 'never got there'.

So sad about Buchi's loss. I had no idea. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Your question is interesting - makes me want to read her other books now. Maybe I should put up a post requesting readers to submit questions they would like to ask Buchi? That might help get the ball rolling when I contact her publishers. Thanks for that tip too:)

OS, are you a teacher or a lecturer? I'm not surprised your students chose Half - it's lighter because it has more humour and also rounder, better developed characters too.

Amy said...

I haven't read this review yet as the book is on my shelf to be read and am trying to stay as in the dark about the events that occur in the book as possible. Just wanted to say that I cannot wait to read this after reading her first two :)

Adura Ojo said...

@ Amy
I know what you mean. I also do not read reviews or at least avoid detailed ones before I read/review a book. Hopefully I've not given too much away despite the detail here;)

Purple Hibiscus is Adichie's first book. I hope you enjoy reading and i look forward to your review. Hope you're enjoying the Easter break.

os said...

*Singing Fela* - “Teacher, teacher o, na lecturer be the same… No be same category o…”

I do some part-time teaching…

Myne Whitman said...

Ahh...I must have missed that. I prefer my reviews more balanced. Atala started with PH, and gave up saying he wasn't feeling it. Now he's biased against HOAYS, I'm trying to assure him it's much better.

Geosi said...

Wonderful review. I very much enjoyed this one just like her other books.

Adura Ojo said...

@ OS
LOL. Thanks for that, OS. 'Already dancing to the tune in my head.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Myne Whitman
Depends on what you mean by 'balanced'. If you mean reviews that comment on the 'good' and 'not so good' about a particular book; I'm all for that. Sometimes I just don't find downsides to comment about; and that's ok too.

I'm naturally drawn to books that I think I might like. I certainly wouldn't bother reading something I might not like. Having made my choice, I do the review - warts and all. Sometimes there just aren't any warts worthy of note, from my point of view.

Occasionally I might notice one little wart after the review has been done. Lol. It's just the way it is. Any critical exercise is pretty much a subjective one, as you know.

Re: Atala not feeling it. It's quite possible for some people not to warm up to the heaviness of the subject matter and the style of delivery - (As I said earlier, there is very little humour because of the seriousness of the subject matter and perhaps this is why some readers find it 'hard going').
For some of us, it is storytelling gold because it delivers the message with no apologies. One person's meat as they say, is another one's poison. Lol.

I hope you'll be able to convince Atala to read Half 'cos that's a completely different story with a lot more humour and perhaps more appealing to both men and women alike with universal themes of war, love and humanity.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Geosi
Thanks, Geosi. I did wonder if the review was too long. You've reaffirmed my faith:)
It's nice to hear that you enjoyed reading PH as much as Adichie's other two.

Anonymous said...

I think i understand what myne means by a 'balanced' review. No book exists which is so perfect that it does not have its weak spots. Even the transcendent Things Fall Apart is not free this universal phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

I think i understand what myne means by a 'balanced' review. No book exists which is so perfect that it does not have its weak spots. Even the transcendent Things Fall Apart is not free this universal phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Lots of good reading here, thank you! I had been checking on yahoo when I observed your article, I’m going to add your feed to Google Reader, I look forward to much more from you.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Anonymous
Thank you for your comment.
When I said I found no downsides worthy of note, I was not implying that the book was perfect. I did say reviewing a book is pretty much a subjective activity. I may like what you don't like and vice versa. There is certainly no such thing as a perfect book.

Shoneye Funmike said...

I'm actually writing my thesis on PH.Reading this review makes it worthwhile.Hoping to be a writer myself.

Adura Ojo said...

Greetings to you, Funmike and thanks for your comment. All the best with your thesis. Would love to read it when it is finished and already assessed, if you could kindly forward a copy. Good luck in your writing too:)


My name is Maria Iyabi, I am a 300level student of Caleb University Imota Lagos Nigeria studying Mass Communication. Purple Hibiscus is one book i love so much because it tells everything about a family structure and what it entails. The writer made justice to the book. It portrays the lifestyle of individuals in this present day. you've done a good job with the review..... keep it up.


My name is Maria Iyabi, I am a 300level student of Caleb University Imota Lagos Nigeria studying Mass Communication. I have the book and its very educative, interesting and it teaches a lot. You have done a good job with the review of the book.....its brilliant. keep it up

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