About the Reviewer:
Linda Shaji-Pauline is a feminist with a love for post-colonial literature. When she’s not at work, her motto is, “will walk for food.” You can often find her walking around all over the city in search of that new restaurant. She is still undecided if she loves music or books more but agrees that together they make the best combination. Together they make her life in finance very tolerable.
I first read Purple Hibiscus during my undergraduate studies as part of a reading list. This was the first time we were introduced to English literature from the African continent. With the deadline arriving for a book report, I desperately tried searching for a cheap book out of the list that was available in the local bookstore. I figured that I would use the remaining change for a snack or so, not realising that this would turn out to be one of my favourite reads! I believe I’ve read it four times at least.
So with such a biased stance, I believe I’m all set to review Purple Hibiscus yet again.
Adichie has mentioned before that she’s been influenced by one of Nigeria’s greatest post-colonial authors – Chinua Achebe. This strikes the reader the minute we read the first line, “Things started to fall apart……”
So what is the novel about?
Purple Hibiscus is a first-person narrative by a 15-year-old girl. Now that makes me wonder which popular fictional book did that the last time?
Kambili is the protagonist’s name that comes along quite late in the book. In my native tongue, Malayalam, this word would mean “blanket” and so Kambili wrapped herself and her thoughts around me in the week it took me to complete this book.
15-year-old Kambili lives with her older, 17-year-old brother Jaja, and her parents: Mama Beatrice (whose name, too is revealed rather late in the book) and Papa Eugene.
However, both Kambili and Jaja live a restricted life built by their Papa, a devout Christian, who believes in the White man’s supremacy in liberated Nigeria. Papa is rich, something rather uncommon in Postcolonial Nigeria. He owns a newspaper that strongly speaks out against the government and is therefore quite a revolutionary one in its own way. However his house is the exact opposite: quiet, rigid and restrictive. Papa’s home is unlike his sister’s Ifeoma’s where there is a lot of noise. Like her brother (a newspaperman), Ifeoma is in one of the “noble” professions – teaching. In her personal and professional life, she is not a quiet personality and fosters curiosity in her peers, students, and children.
Slightly digressing from the short summary, I love teachers. As a kid, I loved contradicting them as much as I learned from them. Ifeoma is one of the main reasons to love this book. She reminded me of my own mother, who continues to teach me to rebel.
Getting back to the summary, Kambili and Jaja get an opportunity to spend a few days with Ifeoma and their cousins. They meet their “heathen” relatives and their more “Christian” relatives. Can Kambili and Jaja survive the heathens and be guided by Christianity? With Aunt Ifeoma coming into their lives, will this calm in their homes and hearts remain the same?
I especially love the book for the rantings of a 15-year-old. Her thoughts are so loud and magnificent. She is only waiting to be heard. For me, this confirmed the idea that one must be encouraged to question, else the thoughts in your head will never come out. This helped me train my interns/juniors and frequently they get scolded when they forget to ask “why” when I give them instructions on how finance in my organisation works. Towards the end of the book, we see that she’s started formulating her thoughts and words much more than what she used to. In this sense, it is a a coming of age kind of a tale, a poignant female bildungsroman.
Adichie, who has now penned about 4-5 works, is now the most easily recognised Nigerian author. One of the critiques I had of Achebe was the lack of female perspectives, and Adichie has more than made up for it. The book still does not have any variants of the “liberated women” but what we do see is the“voice of a woman” so we can see past the lens that the patriarchal society would have imposed upon her and see the world through a “woman’s eye”. This I believe is central to writing from colonised spaces.
One cannot really have a review of the book, without talking about its title “Purple Hibiscus”. The hibiscus is a common flower that is found in subtropical and tropical regions, but the purple one is rather rare. So although common, the purple hibiscus has a surprising and rebellious edge than its counterparts, which makes them unique. It is a symbol of freedom. You may look ordinary, but your thoughts and how it eventually shapes you (since this is a coming of age tale) helps you become unique. It is a telling title that reflects the crux of the story.
Purple Hibiscus also made me reflect upon Christianity, a religion my family has devoutly followed before India was even colonised. Graves in my family are dated as far as the 11th century if one of my uncles is to be believed. There are others who suggest that we have been Christians since AD 52 and St. Thomas has baptised some of us. So Christianity in the Malayali fold was not a means for the coloniser (the Europeans who invaded us around 1498) to propagate themselves. Hence, the Malayali Christian was never subjected to Christianity as a means of attachment to their coloniser, unlike the Nigerians. Thus, for the Malayali, his Jesus was separate as compared to the coloniser’s Jesus. Since the coloniser’s Jesus came to their land long after Saint Thomas did, the coloniser’s Christianity was to frown upon. This kind of Christianity was devout in its own Indian ways and the coloniser’s way was just plain wrong. So much so, that marriage between the two was not permitted. In this sense, Papa’s strong sense of Christianity bears a strong resemblance to what the Malayali Christian believes in. Both are extreme, but there is always a midway. With Christianity undergoing changes (be it since A.D. 52 or from circa 1498) an amalgamation and acceptance seem to be the only way out to live peacefully. And so Ifeoma’s way of life seems to be the best according to me.
One thing that helps the reader connect to the book is the usage of Nigerian food. I could never have imagined Nigerian food, had it not been for Adichie. She uses this in her other works too, including Americanah. Adichie’s magic lies in how she’s made use of common Nigerian Igbo food to connect the characters with themselves and us. The food is strikingly Nigerian though there are some English elements to it such as when Kambili gets her period the morning before she has to attain communion at mass, and chomps down cereal to help her have her pain medications. This time, however, the English does bring her pain with her papa learning about this and not being happy about it. Her happy meals are always Nigerian such as fufu and chicken with her cousins (however rationed). To me, this would seem to suggest that no matter what we do, the Nigerian will remain Nigerian with some elements of England, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The two can co-exist respectfully.
So, what are you waiting for? You don’t need to be eating jollof rice while you read the Purple Hibiscus. Grab a copy and immerse yourself in this debut Nigerian novel.
Check out her other novel, Half of a Yellow Sun‘s review, here!