A review of Purple Hibiscus by the 2007 Orange Prize (now the Bailey's Women's Prize) winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Purple Hibiscus was first published in 2003 by Algonquin Books and most recently by Narrative Landscape Press. Winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Purple Hibiscus is available in 28 languages.
Cover images via Narrative Landscape Press and Chimamanda.
I first read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, when it was published 14 years ago, and I recall being in awe of her storytelling. As I reread it this year, that same feeling resurfaced. Purple Hibiscus tells a story about a seemingly normal Nigerian family unraveling as a military regime comes to power in Nigeria. The story captures the struggles of a politically troubled Nigeria as well as the disintegrating Achike family, both in a fight to bud and bloom in the face of abuse.
Power Must Change Hands
There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time."
Purple Hibiscus is set against the backdrop of a recent coup, and as the lives of the Achikes unravel at home, so does the country. Their aunt, Ifeoma, wrote the above to Kambili after moving to America because of unrest at her job in the University of Nigeria following the coup. Her words, presumably said about Americans, echo the sentiment of military leaders of the time. Pre-1999, military interventions in Nigeria were always under the guise of taking over to instill discipline, end corruption, and ensure order, correcting all the perceived mistakes of the democratic leadership.
The first time the coup is mentioned, it is as the priest holds up Kambili’s father, Eugene Achike, as a shining example of how to act right in the face of one. To hear the priest tell it, Kambili's Papa is a shining example of a person who "reflects the Triumphant Entry". He uses his newspaper to speak out for freedom, makes the biggest donations to the church, and he watches to see who does not take communion so they can be restored to the fold. Eugene, venerated by the priest during Sunday Mass, upheld by the village folk and generally praised by all who know him, seems like the perfect man.
In office, successive military governments failed to deliver all they promised and, in the course of holding on to power by means of force, eroded justice in the country. The coup and military government in Purple Hibiscus are no different. The rule of force leaves no room for dissent, and where any citizens or institutions tried to speak truth, they were met with punishment designed to ensure they fell in line quietly. In spite of Kambili’s father Eugene’s ‘goodness’, it is easy to draw parallels between the Achike home and the country, between him and the military leaders.
Eugene’s children and wife are proud of what a good man he is. Kambili holds herself together to prevent her pride from showing because her father emphasises the importance of modesty. Everything is because ‘Papa said.’ Their practiced responses and reactions, all in the way and measure Papa said. His word is law. They are proud, yet terrified of what a punishing man he is. To them. At home. Where no one sees. Where he pours hot water on his teenage daughter's feet, as tears stream down his face, supposedly out of love because "...you saw the sin clearly and you walked right into it." Kambili’s mother, Beatrice, is a meek woman who does everything to try to please her husband. When she fails, she is battered to the point of hospitalisation.
In spite of the prison-like conditions of her life, Beatrice is incredibly grateful to have Eugene. She tells her daughter about how he has stayed with her, despite the fact that she’s only given him two children, grateful he has not left her despite the comments by relatives. When her husband’s sister tries to persuade her to leave because of his abuse, Beatrice waves the advice aside, chalking it up to Ifeoma’s “university ideas”. The children are raised in a near-militaristic way that leaves them without a name for the abuse their father perpetuates or a voice even when outside the home. Out in the world—in school or even among their cousins—Kambili walks around tongue tied, longing to speak but finding herself unable to. Abuse, emotional and/or physical, takes a toll on the victims, one that sometimes leads to long-term effects, including physical illness.
Fight Or Flee
Everyone has a breaking point—the question is if it leads them to fight or flee. In Purple Hibiscus, citizens protest the military rule at first, but as the days turn on their sides and bring more awareness of the times in which they lived, they shrink back. It starts with driving with leaves on one’s car to signify peace, to people doing nothing as soldiers whip wantonly in the marketplace, then institutional issues like installing sole administrators in universities. The press mirrors this position, learning silence.
Aunty Ifeoma, who tries, in her own little environment in the University, to take a stand, finds that it is hard to fight the power. Like many others who left Nigeria in those years, she packs her bags and her children and leaves for America. A few people try on the national scale. Eugene provides the platform, and his Editor, Ade Coker, continues to speak and take a stand against the military, yet, even they are quieted in the end.
Everyone has a breaking point—the question is if it leads them to fight or flee. For Beatrice, it is when her husband beats another foetus out of her, so hard she insists as she recounts, “it has never happened like this before.” For Kambili and her brother Jaja, it is their first time away from their parents. Seeing how their cousins live with their aunt shakes something loose in them. The order Eugene instilled for almost two decades falls apart after all this, leaving one dead, another jailed, and the remaining two of the four Achikes going against all the morality Eugene had tried to enforce in order to keep what’s left of their family.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus is a brilliant tracing of family and national faults, the things that build us into who we are, and the ways we can happen to life and vice versa. "Immensely powerful" as The Times describes, it is one of those timeless books that deserve revisiting.
a Page 301 referenced from 4th Estate Books Edition of Purple Hibiscus.