§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a great novel. Like Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, the most famous West African novel, Purple Hibiscus deals with the interaction between cultures, only several generations after the first white men, the cultural landscape is far more complex than in Okonkwo’s time. The heroine is a 15 year old girl whose father has completely bought into the “white man’s” ways. He’s Catholic and takes his religion not only seriously but to the excess that he abandons his elderly father who refuses to convert from traditional beliefs and practices and he punishes his wife and children for “their own good”. He is in short a tyrant, more set in the ways of the white man than the nuns and priests who come from Europe, and he motivates everyone around him by the threat of eternal damnation.

Kambili, his daughter, honors her father for what he does—he’s a factory and newspaper owner, gives much of his wealth to help his people and stands up for individual freedoms in risky situations. Like her mother and brother, she never refers to her father’s excesses, even among themselves. She follows the schedule her father sets up for her and studies to be first in her class because that’s all he will accept. She has no friends outside the family—no time on the schedule—and the father sees no value there. She doesn’t worry about the future because she knows that when the time comes her father will make study and career decisions for her.

Then she and her brother visit their widowed aunt (the father’s sister) who’s struggling to keep herself and her three children afloat on a lecturer’s salary at a University where politics comes before learning and where electricity, gas and water are always irregular. Food is less plentiful than at home and you have to cook it yourself, but there is laughter in the house and love is shown openly. Gradually Kambili and Jaja change. A young missionary priest who plays football with the local kids and sometimes appears in his sweaty shorts turns their understanding of the Church on its head.

It’s a coming-of-age story in a complex cultural situation. The ending is as explosive as Nigerian politics and testifies to the endurance of human love and connection in the worst possible conditions.

The first sentence pays homage to the author's greatest predecessor: "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." Not only does she tell an updated Things Fall Apart story, but she manipulates things (the missal and the figurines) into symbols like Achebe with Okonkwo's gun.


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