It is difficult to describe the oppression that haunts every page of the brilliant novel Purple Hibiscus. Sure, it could be the oppressive heat described so well by the young author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, brought about by the harsh African harmattan winds. Or it could be the force of an unquestioned faith in religion. But in Purple Hibiscus, the worst kind of oppression is the stifling power of abuse — verbal, mental, and physical abuse wrought by Kambili’s father, “Papa".
Papa is an interesting character study — a person so completely sold on the superiority of the Western mode of thought and action, especially through religion, that he will stop at nothing to see it enforced in his own house. He is at once consumed by raw extremes of passion—extreme love and, worse, extreme anger. His family, including the protagonist, Kambili, live every minute in sheer terror, looking upon Papa for constant approval. Adichie’s descriptions of Papa’s stifling presence are extremely well done—one’s heart bleeds for the family.
During one particularly telling episode, Kambili has stood second in her class at school and the sheer terror in her voice is scary — one waits with bated breath for the nasty consequences that are sure to follow:
“The Reverend Sisters gave us our cards unsealed. I came second in my class. It was written in figures: “2/25.” My form mistress, Sister Clara, had written, “Kambili is intelligent beyond her years, quiet and responsible.” The principal, Mother Lucy, wrote, “A brilliant, obedient student and a daughter to be proud of.” But I knew Papa would not be proud. He had often told Jaja and me that he did not spend so much money on Daughters of the Immaculate Heart and St. Nicholas to have us let other children come first…I wanted to make Papa proud, to do as well as he had done. I needed him to touch the back of my neck and tell me I was fulfilling God’s purpose. I needed him to hug me close and say that to whom much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.”
Eventually Kambili and her brother Jaja get a taste of freedom when their aunt Ifeoma takes them away for a little vacation to her country home. Yet even here, while the two are free from their father’s physical presence, they can understandably never shake off their father’s shadow. Every time the phone rings, Kambili quakes in fear.
All around them, Nigeria is slowly disintegrating just as the family slowly does. A violent coup causes Aunt Ifeoma to leave the country for America. Adichie makes some political statements here, “these are the people [Westerners in general] who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times that we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time. It is like telling a crawling baby who tries to walk, and then falls on his buttocks, to stay there. As if the adults walking past him did not all crawl, once.” These political statements might be lost on the reader only because Kambili’s own personal tragedy seems so much more urgent and dangerous.
Kambili and Jaja along with their long-suffering mother eventually liberate themselves from the tyranny of their father. It is a questionable freedom, though. Like any survivor of abuse, Kambili finds that release without closure is small success. “Silence hangs over us [now],” she says toward the end of Purple Hibiscus, “but it is a different kind of silence. One that lets me breathe. I have nightmares about the other kind, the silence of when Papa was alive. In my nightmares, it mixes with shame and grief and so many other things that I cannot name, and forms blue tongues of fire that rest above my head, like Pentecost, until I wake up screaming and sweating.”
Purple Hibiscus is so stunningly good it is hard to believe that its author was just twenty-five years old when she wrote it. Her debut novel proves beyond a doubt that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most powerful young voices to recently emerge from Africa.
A blurb on the back cover of the book says that Purple Hibiscus is one of the strongest debuts since Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I agree. However, Roy, it seems, has found Small Things a difficult act to follow up. One hopes that Adichie doesn’t find a fresh start quite so daunting a task. We need to hear from her; time might indeed heal all wounds, but we need to hear that Kambili is better now. What a treat it would be to know that Kambili has now savored true freedom for a while —that freedom for her, is no longer a rare, fragrant, purple hibiscus.