Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja live in a privileged world within Nigeria, where their wealthy father Eugene can provide them with many comforts and luxuries. In stark contrast, Eugene’s sister Ifeoma struggles as a university professor to put food on the table for her children. However, for all their wealth, Kambili’s family has much less joy than her cousins’. While Eugene and Ifeoma were both converted to Catholicism by missionaries, Eugene embraced it to the exclusion of his culture and his former life, while Ifeoma was able to incorporate Catholicism into her life without rejecting her heritage. Eugene sets exacting, impossible standards for his children, who only learn to enjoy life and find out more about their family and their heritage when they are sent to stay with Ifeoma during a school holiday.
One of my favorite books I read last year was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Nigerian war to create the independent state of Biafra, so I approached Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, with a mix of eagerness and dread. I confess to being rather hard on first novels, and I wanted this book to compare favorably to Half of a Yellow Sun. Purple Hibiscus is not nearly as wide in scope as Half of a Yellow Sun–while political unrest in Nigeria informs the work, Adichie’s main focus in Purple Hibiscus is family and religion. Within its narrower confines, and more familiar territory, Adichie still manages to demonstrate her considerable talent as a writer, and while the book doesn’t equal Half of a Yellow Sun, the path to it from this work is clear.
On the surface, Purple Hibiscus reads like a YA novel, and Kambili’s narrative voice at times seems younger than her 15 years. Yet Adichie’s oblique questioning of Catholicism/Christianity as any more valid than polytheism gives the mature reader plenty of food for thought. Eugene’s abuse of his children is at times tough to take, and while I would recommend this book to mature teenagers, their parents should be prepared to discuss this difficult issue.