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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, May 23rd, 2004


Purple Hibiscus

by Chimamanda Adichie

An Igbo patriarch

A review by Ranti Williams

Post-colonial Nigeria has produced a notable tradition of prose writing from which comes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus, which tells of a teenager watching her family break down in a country that is doing the same. As in many post-colonial societies, the personal and political are inseparable, although here the disintegration of the Nigerian state (a military coup takes place early on in the story) is as nothing compared to the fracturing family at the centre of the novel. The events take place in Igboland in Eastern Nigeria, and the narrator, fourteen-year-old Kambili, is the obedient only daughter of a harsh Roman Catholic patriarch, Eugene, a big man and wealthy local manufacturer in the city of Enugu. Eugene is the proprietor of a newspaper in which, at considerable personal cost, he bravely champions freedom of speech against military tyranny at the same time as he rules his home with the most tyrannical of iron grips.

Adichie builds a complex picture of a man struggling with his own demons, taking out his struggles on those he loves: his wife, Beatrice, son, Jaja, and Kambili herself. It should be hard to sympathize with a man who beats his pregnant wife and who, after deploring the soldiers' torture of his editor with lighted cigarettes, pours boiling water over the bare feet of his adored daughter as a punishment for coming second in class. And yet Eugene, self-made and ultimately self-hating, is the book's loneliest character; his misunderstanding of Christianity has led him to reject the animist beliefs of his own ageing father and to repudiate the old man himself, perversely hating the sinner more than the sin. Kambili writes of her father at one point: "It was... as if something weighed him down, something he could not throw off".

The novel's picture of modern Nigeria is an authentic one; it depicts a land full of potential and with an educated middle class, a country in which a coup can suddenly erupt and a local newspaper editor can be killed for what he writes; a place whose inhabitants are aware of their nation's flaws and yet are fiercely patriotic, loath to emigrate until things get truly desperate. This is the fate of Eugene's sister, Ifeoma, a widowed university professor. Her household is the opposite of Eugene's; she allows her children relative freedom of expression and thus introduces Kambili and Jaja to a world beyond their strictly regimented home, with the result that they cannot return without the unravelling of their tightly wound family life.

Chimamanda Adichie's main strength is dialogue: as her characters speak, one hears the voices of modern Nigeria. Her descriptions, however, sometimes lack subtlety, and she has a tendency to overdo the symbolism: objects break as the family falls apart; the purple hibiscus runs rampant over the tidy garden as the children and their mother test their freedom. The narrative voice mostly convinces as the naive tone of a sheltered child facing the adult world, although, at times, Kambili can sound simply disingenuous. This is particularly true of the treatment of her schoolgirl crush on the impossibly virtuous young Catholic curate, who is the book's only really unconvincing character. Overall, Purple Hibiscus, which has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, is a compelling tale told well by a confident voice with much potential for the future.

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