A sense of unrest dominates the life of Kambili, the fifteen-year-old narrator through whose eyes we experience the world of this debut novel. Introverted and insecure, her voice at times seems younger than her years, having grown up in fear and awe of her father. The owner of a pro-democracy newspaper in a time of political brutality and a much respected member of his community, at home Kambili’s father is uncompromising in his Christianity and given to violent rages which he unleashes on all of the family, and especially on Kambili’s mother. Throughout the course of the novel, we follow Kambili’s journey as she and her brother cope with the problems and contradictions of their difficult family life, and of life in Nigeria as a whole.
Purple Hibiscus begins with the line, ‘Things started to fall apart at home,’ a possible allusion to Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, pointing to the change and disorder that have characterised Nigeria’s troubled past. As the novel begins, Kambili struggles to know her own mind, let alone speak it. When she and her brother go to stay with her cousin and Aunty Ifeoma, a lecturer at a university campus, they experience first-hand the anger and confusion felt by Nigeria’s youth, and watch as their aunt is forced to leave for America. While Chimamanda explores the wider issues of faith, tradition and politics – relating the rituals of both Christian and traditional Igbo beliefs, the death of Kambili’s estranged grandfather, and the student riots at the university – she also memorably evokes the very personal experience of growing up.
Chimamanda’s characters are well drawn, and there is a subtle and reserved quality to the first-person narration; a quiet tension that drives the reader on, showing Kambili’s powerlessness at the violence she experiences. The purple hibiscuses that grow in Aunty Ifeoma’s garden – an ‘experimental’ strain, ‘rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom’ – become the book’s central metaphor as Kambili develops into her own voice, blossoming amid the freedom her aunt allows her. The questions that define Kambili’s character – when to speak and when to remain silent, when to act and when to prevent action – are ones with which all of the characters struggle, both in the intimate circumstances of everyday family life and in the wider world.
Nominated for the 2004 Booker Prize, Purple Hibiscus is an impressive debut which Chimamanda wrote when she was just twenty-five. It is a compelling story that handles powerful subject matter with skill and sensitivity, but which also owes some of its best passages to descriptions of the small moments that make up everyday life. It is her attention to detail in etching daily minutiae such as the preparation of food, tending a garden or listening to music, that so effectively complements her more dramatic and thought-provoking observations.