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