Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Purple Hibiscus

A couple of years ago, when we had a great book club in Kuwait, I read Half of a Yellow Sun, by this author, and I was blown away. Some books you just read for entertainment, and some books have such a strong, compelling voice that it comes back to you, again and again, and you think about it for a long time.

So when recommended Purple Hibiscus, I bought it, along with The Thing Around Your Neck. Purple Hibiscus is the author’s first book, and The Thing Around Your Neck is her most recent. In 2009, I found an interview with her online; you can watch it by clicking here: An Interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is an enormously talented author.

When I read Half of a Yellow Sun, I became Igbo, growing up in Nigeria. While that story was told through many eyes, I was able to be a boy from the bush brought to the college campus to be a houseboy, I got to be a wife, her sister, her professor husband. We experienced the Biafran succession, the insanity of several regime changes in Nigeria, the total fog and waste of war, through the eyes of the Biafrans.

Reading Purple Hibiscus was a little different; the story is told through the eyes of a girl, Kambili, who lives in a very controlled environment. We know from the very beginning that things are not right in her wealthy, beautiful world. Her father and mother love her, take good care of her, feed her, clothe her – and that is just a part of a bigger picture. Her father has an idea of the way things should be; he attained his position and wealth through his education by the Catholic priests and he has a rigid idea of how everything must be done. Vary from his strictures, and you get beaten, or scalded, or you little finger is broken and disfigured.

Part of what makes this book so compelling is that while the environment is Nigeria, and, to us, exotic, the climate of abuse is the same everywhere. It’s a dirty little secret, even in the wealthiest of families, you keep your mouth shut to stay alive, and to protect your family’s image. Abuse is no stranger to rich or poor families, and can only stay alive because people stay silent.

Kambili, fifteen when we meet her, lives a tiny, small, scared life, following the weekly schedules her father prints out for her and her brother and posts over her desk. She hears her mother beaten over the smallest failure, imagined or real. Her mother miscarries twice due to these beatings, and her father tenderly cares for the mother whose miscarriage his beatings caused. It is crazy-world. Kambeli and her brother are expected to take first in every class; if they do not, they, too, pay a severe penalty.

Just as the political climate in Nigeria starts to tremble and fall apart, so, too, does Kambili’s life, and in the falling apart, comes new ways of doing things, new perspectives, new risks and even learning to run, to laugh, to be ‘normal’ as other children are. She is blessed to have an aunt at the university, no where near so wealthy as her family but able to cajole her father into letting the children visit with her. The aunt, Ifeoma, laughs, and encourages her children to challenge other’s opinions respectfully, and who grows the very rare Purple Hibiscus. Her heart aches for Kambili and her brother, and she tries to give them space to figure things out for themselves, and to chose what they want for themselves.

It is a scary time in Nigeria, a time when men can come to the door and take someone away, and you don’t know if you will ever see them again, or how damaged they will be if they return. Kambili’s own life is full of a similar terror, but the terror is inflicted by someone who she loves, and who loves her.

I love the soul of an author who can write a book like this, a book that makes me feel like in another life I was a Nigerian. I can’t begin to think I know much about Nigeria now, but having read three books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I have the broad outlines of the divisions which traumatize and fracture Nigeria to this day. Even better, I understand how very different the cultural expectations are from our own, and how very similar we are as human beings.

This is a great read. It is inspirational. You might even learn something. You can find it on

June 17, 2011 - Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Books, Family Issues, Law and Order, Leadership, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues | ,

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