13 October 2009

Book review: Purple Hibiscus

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Pages: 303
Published in the year: 2004

The one thing to do before reading Nigerian literature is to take up Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart,  the most definitive book on the country's culture and history.  Prior to Achebe's book, there was no real documentation of Nigerian history ie pre British rule. There was a whole existing culture - very unique and traditional - which swiftly underwent a transformation after the colonial rule. The subsequent generations in the country grew up mostly as Christians (after converting), with little or no memory of their forefathers.

This history is essential to the understanding of Nigerian literature, and proves immensely helpful in the reading of say, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's works, which are closely allied to the past and present concerns of the country. In many ways, Adichie is constantly referred as as the literary daughter of Achebe and rightfully so. Hers has been one of the most assured, passionate voices for Nigeria and its people and all her three books so far, Purple Hibiscus, Half Of a Yellow Sun and her last collection of short stories, That Thing Around Your Neck has forcefully put forth several aspects of the country.

My introduction to Adichie happened with Half Of a Yellow Sun, a deeply affecting piece of work that is set during the civil war (Biafra) that happened in Nigeria in the 60s.
Emotionally provocative and deeply political, the book recounts a watershed period in Nigerian history. Adichie's other two books also vividly capture various important aspects of the Nigerians, for example, That Thing Around Your Neck talks about immigration and life for Nigerians in America (many of them went to the US when life in their country became particularly difficult). Purple Hibiscus also hints at many of these problems, but neither of them comes close to Half Of A Yellow Sun in terms of its stunning emotional and physical expanse and dramatic impact. Which is why if you end up reading this one before the others, you might feel slightly underwhelmed. That is what happened with me, but still Adichie's remains a very important voice.

Purple Hibiscus is a novel that talks of religious intolerance and the coming of age of the shy, tongue-tied 15 year old Kambili. She stays with her brother Jaja, mother and father, Eugene. The latter is an extremely wealthy man, but also highly domineering and fanatical about his Christian faith. When the novel begins, you see him obsessing over different practices and rituals associated with the Church. He's affectionate to his children, but also expects them to comply to a tyrannical set of rules. They are supposed to stand first in class without fail, they are not allowed to close their room for any privacy (fearing they might masturbate), they cannot meet their grandfather often because he has not converted to Christianity and still follows the traditional Igbo ways.
Any failure to adhere to these rules results in the most inhuman punishment. On one occasion, Eugene puts Kambili in a tub and pours scalding hot water over her feet. At another time, he flings the Bible on his wife's stomach. The family lives in dread of the patriarch but they also realize he's an important man and a loving husband and father when his command is closely adhered to.

The political scene in Nigeria --- always very volatile with a culture of military coups – goes through another period of upheaval in the 90s and comes to affect all the characters in the story. Eugene also runs a newspaper – among his other factories – that is known for its courageous news reporting. Under the new regime, his editor's life is threatened and slowly, Eugene too starts to feel the heat. On their aunt Ifeoma's persistent request, Jaja and Kambili are allowed to spend some days at her place, along with her children. Ifeoma is a strong, well-meaning, warm person. A lecturer at the Universitiy, she is single-handledly bringing up her kids after her husband's death. Her brother Eugune refuses to be generous with her, because she won't comply with many of his conditions related to religion. She also despises the way he treats their father who lives in relative penury.

It is in this scenerio that Adichi traces the emotional journey of Kambili, from whose point of view the story is told. Eugene – in an exaggerated sense – depicts a generation that wants to completely erase their past history and what their forefathers stood for. As one knows, the British made a deep impression on the local populace and slowly a large percentage of people converted to Christianity.
But Eugene's character appears particularly unattractive, because the root of his fanaticism is not very clear in the novel. If there indeed was such a class that carried its obsession to this degree, then it probably needed some more explanation. Most of what Eugene does appears irrational and eccentric. The character of Kambili, on the other hand, is too passive for you to ever get invested in her.

Many episodes in the novel are not convincingly done. Eugene repeatedly sending his children to his sister's place in spite of being angry with her or Kambili's relationship with her sulky cousin who suddenly warms up to her in the end or even the last chapter involving Eugene's death, all seem a bit puzzling. Also, incidents leading to Jaja's prison episode do not ring very true. Moreover, Kambili's attraction for the young Father Amanda and their constant need to be in each other's company is awkward and forced.

Yet, there are strengths too. Aunt Ifeoma's warmth and integrity as a person shines through and many of the episodes involving her with the children in her cozy little home are affecting. I also quite like the title, which alludes to a rare colour of the Hibiscus flower in Nigeria and the glint of rebellion it symbolizes for the author.

There are also many issues relating to the Nigerian society that comes to the fore through various instances. The rising cost of food grains, fruits, fuel under the military rule causes great distress to its middle class populace. People are stranded since their cars won't move without fuel. The Gas cylinder is a luxury and Aunt Ifeoma is thereby forced to use it judiciously. It's a time when resentment against the military regime has started to grow. Many start considering a new life in the US, albeit with fear of racism in a new country.

The book also gives vivid details of jail life in Nigeria – this became a full length short story in Adichie's third book.

Purple Hibiscus offers telling glimpses of Nigerian life. It's a short book (300 pages) and even though it gets over in quick time and has its moments, it isn't compelling as a whole. But Adichie reveals her controlled yet dramatic style of storytelling. And to think she wrote this book when she was barely 27.

-Sandhya Iyer

1 comment:

Bradly Jones said...

Thanks for the post. It's like five years of not being in Nigeria has finally made me out-dated for this to be news to me. The change is amazing. Great blog!

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