Review of “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus is a story told in the first person by Kambili, a 15-year-old living in a relatively wealthy house in Nigeria along with her older brother, Jaja; her mother, Beatrice; and father, Eugene. Eugene sees himself as the epitome of Christian piety, but beats his wife and children almost senseless when they exhibit what he deems to be wicked behavior (such as, for example, if the kids rank second rather than first in class).

In the background, a parallel story recounts the repression and turmoil of the current political regime. Kambili’s family is keenly aware that speaking out against injustice can get you imprisoned or even killed, just like speaking out at home can earn Kambili and Jaja a scolding by their father, or worse.

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Kambili and Jaja are submissive and dutiful, “until Nsukka.” This is where their Aunty Ifeoma lives, and where they unexpectedly get to spend some time on a visit. There, they see a different vision of family, and learn how good it feels to be free – to laugh, even to cry.

But the regime is not about to give, nor is their father.

Discussion: There are so many momentous themes and symbols and parallels running through this very impressive book. One leitmotif is the tension between those Nigerians who slavishly parrot the colonialist lines (including the one that maintains that whites and everything about them are superior), and those who find value in their own culture and even appearance. Another is the hypocrisy of some fanatic forms of Christianity. The second-class role of women is also a theme (and simultaneously a reflection of both the paternalism of the regime and of the father of this household), and leads to perhaps the biggest issue of the book: domestic abuse of women and children, and its enduring devastating effects (not only physical but mental).

Eugene is not just a cardboard evil character. He is loved and respected by those outside his family for his very generous charity and courage. The love that everyone feels for Eugene affects Kambili: though she is afraid of her father, she admires him, and wants nothing more than to please him and for him to love her. The mother wants the same things, although in part, her position is dictated by the strictures imposed on women by society. If Eugene doesn’t want her, her very survival will be in jeopardy. After a particularly brutal beating, she tells Ifeoma:

“‘Where would I go if I leave Eugene’s house? Tell
me where would I go? … Do you know how many
mothers pushed their daughters at him? Do you know
how many told him to impregnate them even, and not
bother paying a bride price?”

There is some riveting dialogue in this book that bring to life the many forms of repression of the book, as with the following discussion of religion. At one point, Kambili, trying at all times to parrot the phrases she knows will make her father happy says:

“God knows best… God works in mysterious ways.”

Then, Jaja, who has been infected the most by the “undertones of freedom”, snorts at her:

“Of course God does. Look what He did to his faithful servant Job, even to His own son. But have you ever wondered why? Why did He have to murder his own son so we would be saved? Why didn’t He just go ahead and save us?”

Evaluation: While this may sound like it is a depressing book, it is not. It certainly has dark moments, but they are counterbalanced by examples of true family love and support; of those who practice a more truly “Christian” faith; and spectacular descriptions of the sights and sounds and smells of Nigeria, with the fragrance of frangipani and hibiscuses mixing with the curry, nutmeg, herbs, and oils. What amazingly complex characters! I am still trying to digest what I think of all of them. And what craftsmanship in the writing! It isn’t easy to weave in so many parallel themes without sounding didactic, and managing to engage our sympathies for every one of them.

This would make one of the best book club discussion books that I have read in a long time!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2004

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Note: For more information about Ms. Adichie (pronounced “ah-DEE-chee-eh), you can watch her speak here on “The Danger of a Single Story” or read the transcript here.

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About rhapsodyinbooks

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14 Responses to Review of “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  1. sandynawrot says:

    I’ve heard absolutely amazing things about her writing, and she has a new book out too! I need to get on her bandwagon. I’m glad you said this wasn’t a big downer book because it sounds like it certainly could have been.

  2. Beth F says:

    As Sandy said, I would have stayed away from this thinking it was going to be horribly depressing. I’ll have to add Adichie to to my must-read list.

  3. This sounds excellent, Jill. I’ve been trying to get my book club to read Half a Yellow Sun for a couple of years now, maybe I’ll start pushing this one instead.

  4. Ti says:

    I read her other book and although I liked the writing, the story was sort of so-so. Maybe I’d like this one better. Although these days I like stories about stuff ripped from the headlines.

  5. Barbara says:

    I’m tempted because of the sights and sounds of Nigeria. Love it when a book transports me to other parts of the world.

  6. This is the first time I come across this book. Wow, your review had me riveted. I will make a note of it for my book club and for me.

  7. Stefanie says:

    I’ve always heard good things about this book and have been meaning to read it for ages. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. bookingmama says:

    Sounds wonderful… and perfect for book clubs.

  9. JoV says:

    Another wonderful recommendation Jill. I read Half of the Yellow Sun, I like it, but didn’t love it. But I love The Thing Around your neck short stories more. I look forward to her new Americanah!

  10. stacybuckeye says:

    Looks good but I will repeat my earlier comment about fluff 😉

  11. litandlife says:

    Oh wow; I think I’ll love this one. Thought-provoking, different culture – right in my wheelhouse.

  12. Sounds wonderful!!! I must read it!

  13. Jenny says:

    This is one of the first books I ever read while having my blog! I haven’t read anything else by Adichie since then, for whatever reason, but I have Americanah in my sights now. I loved Purple Hibiscus and really want to read another one.

  14. Trish says:

    She is a beautiful writer, huh? I don’t think that I could convince my book club(s) to read this one but I definitely need to push it up on my list. I read Half of a Yellow Sun years ago and loved it and can’t remember if this one is on my shelf or not. Glad you enjoyed it!

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