Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, the first work by an African writer to make Britain’s prestigious Orange Award shortlist, is one big heartache of a book. Though tragic on many levels, especially politically and culturally, it still manages to be a coming-of-age story about a shy young girl, Kambili, living an intensely sheltered life in military-controlled Nigeria, where ugly truths are next to impossible to ignore — if you do not stop for them, as the saying about death goes, they will not so kindly knock on your door, gun butts at the ready.
Purple Hibiscus is a somewhat familiar study of all the political tension and identity crises that still define post-colonial Africa, but the characters are what give those things new life and voice, particularly Kambili’s father, a complex figure who is both socially progressive and almost medievally Catholic, a man so conflicted about his own past that he curses the unbelieving natives even as he eloquently argues their cause in the underground newspaper that he publishes. Adichie does a nice job of negotiating all the levels of tyranny here, beginning in Kambili’s own house, a lovely but deeply troubled place that becomes the controlling metaphor for Nigeria itself.
At points the copious detail about the land and the people becomes too rich, like food, and the story gets sluggish; for half the book, Kambili does little except observe things, and though she is understandably inhibited, you can’t help but wonder why, as the book’s narrator, she isn’t a bit more forthcoming. But the emotional opacity and languid rhythms of Hibiscus turn out to be exactly its appeal, and as I read I found myself eager to get back to Kambili, her stronger-willed brother, Jaja, and her Catholic but free-spirited Aunty Ifeoma, a force of tolerance, intelligence and good humor who breaks down the barriers to the real world and self-discovery that Kambili’s father has so diligently tried to construct around his children. As vivid a picture as Adichie paints of Nigeria — you practically taste the dust of the village roads on your tongue and smell the cashew trees after a heavy rain — it is her people, with their thwarted hopes for love and freedom, that stubbornly spring eternal, that stay with you.
PURPLE HIBISCUS | By CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE | Algonquin Books | 307 pages