PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

Book Quote:

“I sat at my bedroom window after I changed; the cashew tree was so close I could reach out and pluck a leaf if it were not for the silver-coloured crisscross of mosquito netting. The bell-shaped yellow fruits hung lazily, drawing buzzing bees that bumped against my window’s netting.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster (AUG 29, 2010)

From the first few pages this novel leaves no room for doubt as to how the narrative will unfold: the struggle of the “outside” and more natural world against that of domestic oppression and enforced sterility. As the book opens with a domestic crisis which overwhelms the narrator in its almost silent enormity, she retreats to her room.

The netting in the above quote is the perfect simile for the walls and boundaries, real and invisible, which surround the narrator. Whom do they keep out, and whom do they keep in? In an instant, we know from this passage alone that although they may keep the mosquitoes out, they also enforce a separation between the narrator and the leaves and bees: a separation decidedly unwelcome.

I found it extraordinary that the message was so clarion, as both the novel’s physical setting (post-coup Nigeria) and spiritual setting (stringently Catholic) are subjects I am personally completely unfamiliar with. I felt I ought to be reading the book with a full-scale guidebook to Africa, so laden is it with unknown phrases and concepts, scents, sounds and sights. It is proof of the superb writing that the unfamiliar and the unknown are in no way alienating, but entirely tantalising in a heady, spicy, dusty mix, making the uninitiated want to touch, taste and feel what the words set before us.

The narrator is Kambili Achike, a girl born to a wealthy family headed by her despotic and sadistic father, Eugene. Her fellow sufferers within the house walls are her mother Beatrice and her brother Jaja. Eugene is well respected within the community: he donates money to churches and the poor, he runs a politically subversive newspaper at tangible physical danger to himself and is seen as no less than a hero. At home he enforces his will on the inmates of the house without a chink of mercy, and with the help of torture and battery at regular intervals.

When the two children manage to escape from the immediate clutches of the household for a short while to Eugene’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma’s residence, the wheels of change start to turn. Ifeoma’s household is an almost pantomime foil to Eugene’s; they are poor but liberated, they have fun. Once they have put the initial chips into the glass coating that keeps the children from admitting their abuse to anyone (including themselves, mostly), there is no return and Eugene’s family starts to disintegrate.

While the physical world and settings may be unfamiliar to many readers, the central core of sadistic domestic abuse and subjugation transcends all cultural boundaries in its immediacy and intimacy. The psychological bullying from her father produces palpable physical effects on the narrator – she develops a fever in response to a crisis, or her legs feel “loose-jointed.”  When she gleans some approval, the joy and relief are also physically palpable: her mouth feels “full of melting sugar;” the abused’s gratitude for sops of “kindness’ shown to them by their abusers. The problems of the nuclear family are mirrored in the larger world, with the omnipotent bullies in power invading every waking and sleeping moment of their subjects, exerting almost complete control.

There is no doubt that in reaching an international audience, Adichie is acutely aware that many of her readers will be as unfamiliar with the Nigerian element (which is the core of the book) as I am. By an impasto technique with the symbolism and parallels, Adichie counters this problem by explaining the state within the country with reference to the domestic situation.

Both nature and the social structure join forces in elucidation. The sadistic “Papa” is the drying, dust-covering Harmattan wind, the (typically female) positive forces have moisture-laden imagery – again, juxtaposing sterility and fertility. This is a central theme both in the family life and at the State level. The narrator’s mother faces possible divorce and destitution for producing insufficient children, but the fault of this lies with her husband Eugene and his physical battering of his ever-pregnant wife.

One aspect that has been noted to be omni-present in this book is the prevalence of food. Its smells, textures, preparation, effect, quality, quantity, power, implications; some readers find it overwhelming. This insistence is directly tied to the sterility/fertility male/female theme. In Eugene’s wealthy household, food is plentiful and good, but there is no contact with the preparation of it, no knowledge of where it comes from. By contrast in the poor household of Aunt Ifeoma, food is scarce and takes a lot of time and effort both to procure and prepare, but appears to be relished more. (No prizes for guessing which is portrayed as the happier state). Most importantly, the enforced separation which the narrator has endured at home from the “womanly” dealing with food is shown as a type of disabling, a condition that debilitates, a sort of castration of abilities. Learning about food empowers the narrator much more than merely to the extent of being handy in the kitchen. It is as if her whole outlook on life changes (albeit incrementally) by learning how to peel a vegetable properly. In peeling it, she learns how to peel herself, to remove the casing to just the right degree.

This brings us back to the walls and boundaries we started off with. The uncrossable boundaries of the family life are admitting to the tyranny and abuse that is being inflicted. The narrator and her brother “speak with their eyes” to each other, as they dare not speak otherwise. As the status quo in the household starts to dissolve under the influence of external forces like Aunty Ifoema and Father Amadi, this method of communication becomes jammed, blocked. The change that heralds this blockage is one for the positive, but it involves great pain. The implication is that this pain cannot be avoided, nor will it ever be eradicated.

Here, we are taken back to the implied view on Nigerian politics Adichie is making. Kambili is not the only protagonist forced to embrace change. When the inspirational Aunty Ifeoma herself is targeted as a trouble-maker by the University authorities, she is extremely reluctant to leave the country which she loves but which tortures her, in favour of an alien one that will offer relative sanctuary from persecution. The argument is mooted in the household: if all the brains leave, who’s going to pick up the pieces? For this, there is no answer.

It perfectly mirrors the escape from tyranny on the domestic level. From the conclusions drawn there, one can only assume that the author sees this situation as inevitable. In the aftermath of the ultimate domestic collapse, the erstwhile victimised members of the family attempt to rebuild a life. They have however been permanently “expelled” from the state they had known hereto, and their efforts are uncoordinated and wandering. The lasting blame which lands on all of them, but particularly the mother (who has possibly been shown to have suffered the most) is drawn with such absolute precision that it is impossible to sidestep the implication that the wronged commoners will nevertheless carry the burden of their oppressors with them wherever they go. Through the telescope of the immediate and intimate, Adichie elucidates the political and cultural situation for outsiders.

But it seems that she has portrayed the abuser only too convincingly for some readers. Many reviewers opine that Eugene is “not all bad” and that the family’s love for him is “genuine.” In fact, the overwhelming majority of reviewers suggest that poor Eugene, he’s got terrible faults but he means well, bless him. This is both a frightening testament to how household bullies get away with what they do, and a homage to Adichie’s skill in portraying the process. Perhaps also it is a more reassuring reflection that the average reader is thankfully shielded from acute domestic violence, physical and psychological. Any “love” the abuser appears to show to his victims is self-directed, his good deeds in political and economic circles are all salves to his own background of abused childhood and repressed impulses. The abuser cannot see his family (and by extension, anyone who comes within his field of power) as anything but reflections and facets of himself. They have no rights or individual standing in his view, and as he forces his own view onto his victims, his view becomes theirs. This is not to say that Eugene does not suffer for his misdeeds: the disfiguring rash that keeps coming up is like a reflection of the myriad wrongs he has inflicted, which no amount of dabbing away with money will erase – and his body knows it, even if he doesn’t.

But by the very process that she has created to explain the Nigerian situation, is seems Adichie might have overdone herself. The excuses which so many readers see in Eugene’s behaviour make the politicians by implication less culpable, and the love of their subjects less conditional. I am sure Adichie’s message is that patriotic love should be conditional, and if the relationship between state and citizen turns abusive then those conditions should be enforced, even if the citizens feel pain and regret at the process.

In a final reinforcement of the parallel, Kambili’s hidden talent which emerges towards the end of the narrative turns out to be:  running. The symbolism is not veiled. From a domestic situation like hers, the best one can do is run, as fast as possible. Perhaps this is what the writer feels is the ultimate fate of the Nigerian people.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 202 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor (September 14, 2004)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


August 29, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Africa, Class - Race - Gender, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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