By Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche
Anchor Books, 2003
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
I'm woefully ill-versed when it comes to African literature. I haven't even read the entirety of Achebe's Africa trilogy, although of course I've read Things Fall Apart. But if Adiche's recent rise to prominence is any indication, it looks like African authors could see a huge upswing in prominence in the next few years. This is something I'd appreciate, not just because I'm in favor of a literary landscape where voices from all over the world are given equal importance, but also because Adiche is quite good, and because a lot of Purple Hibiscus is quite well-developed, especially considering it was Adiche's first novel. You know how sometimes debuts by prominent authors are underdeveloped? Not the case here.
Somewhat strangely for the types of books I review, Purple Hibiscus' plot can be summarized pretty swiftly, although that obviously doesn't take away from the fact that there's a lot to it. It tells the story of Kalimbi, daughter of a wealthy Christian family. Her father, Eugene, is particularly brutal in enforcing his vision of the religion onto the family, punishing them for as small of crimes as staying in "'the home of a heathen'" for longer than "'fifteen minutes'" (62). One of the heathens in question is Kalimbi's grandfather, whom her father seems to detest; use of the grandfather at once allows Adiche to create a complicated family dynamic and paint a portrait of Nigeria pitched halfway between its indigenous traditions and colonial impositions. Despite his rather tyrannical nature at home, Eugene is quite respected in his community, even publishing a radical newspaper.
At first, Kalimbi is happy to follow the path laid out by her father, excelling in school, going to church, and following her father's orders; this is contrasted against her more rebellious brother and best friend, Jaja. However, things complicate in the wake of a military coup. Eugene publishes a close friend of his who opposes the military rule, finds himself under suspicion, and sends his children to live with their less fortunate relatives in the city of Nsukka. The story complicates yet more when their grandfather comes to live with the relatives as well and when Kalimbi finds herself infatuated with a priest whose vision of Christianity has nothing to do with the fire and brimstone taught by her father; meanwhile, Eugene takes his frustrations out by abusing his long-suffering wife, Beatrice.
I'd like to focus this first bit of analysis on Eugene, a character I wasn't entirely sure what to make of. Not that I don't believe that an authoritarian Christian father could exist in the world, but I think his portrayal edged toward caricature at times, which rather deflated the stakes of some scenes. Granted, Adiche pulls away from that by lending him admirable traits such as his publishing endeavors, and it's almost painfully believable to me that he feels as though his abuses are for the good of his family. Yet I do wonder if such small crimes as, say, drinking water offered by a polytheist would justify a beating from even the staunchest of Christians. Then again, I'm willing to give Adiche the benefit of the doubt, since it's entirely possible. After all, I wasn't raised in a terribly religious household and therefore haven't experienced it firsthand. Still, in some ways, Eugene's character rang a little false for me.
Much more interesting to me was the dynamic between Kalimbi and her cousin Amaka. Amaka is at first openly contemptuous of the much richer Kalimbi; in one of their first interactions, she excoriates Kalimbi with lines like "'I'm sure you think Nsukka is uncivilized compared to Enugu'" (117) and for not knowing "culturally conscious" Nigerian musicians such as "'Fela [Kuti], [Chief Stephen] Osadebe, and Onyeka [Onwenu]" (118). However, as the novel progresses and Kalimbi rather comes into her own, an understanding develops between the two. Kalimbi never stops jabbing at her, but the jabs soften as the two form a sort of alliance in reaction to the changes around them. Adiche loves to deal with Nigerian class issues - that's a lot of what her great novel Half of a Yellow Sun is about, after all - and it's fascinating to see the way they play out between two cousins. To my way of seeing things, it illustrates Adiche's ability to blend the personal and political, to extract a more human relationship out of a more abstracted one. It is, in short, really good stuff, and a solid marker of how good of a novelist Adiche is.
Because this is, make no mistake, a highly political book. Even the eponymous flower becomes a symbol of political change. Early in the book, Kalimbi calls them "experimental [...] rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do" (16). Well-written sentence, too, if heavy-handed; after I read it, I jokingly shut the book and said "well, that's the book, don't need to read anymore." If I have one big complaint about this book, it would be the rather unsubtle symbolism. The best symbols are essentially invisible, so well woven into the novel's framework that they don't even register as symbols. Adiche did that well with Half of a Yellow Sun, a reference to the Nigerian flag and a number of other things that I won't spoil for those who haven't read the book. Here, she kind of tips her hand.
But hey! What type of author wouldn't improve from their first book? No kind of author at all, that's what. No kind of author at all. Besides, Adiche gets the politics of this novel across much better in other ways. For instance, I'm sure the adversarial and domineering relationship between Eugene and Kalimbi is intended as a sort of feminist critique of both patriarchy and broader religious systems - Eugene's wrath is pretty Old Testament - she also knows how to make it seem like a story. Not just because of the father's belief that he's in the right, although I'd again like to emphasize how scary that is, but also in terms of her relationship with her brother, Jaja. The two form a sort of alliance, along with their mother, that lasts throughout the book.
Purple Hibiscus also has a rather complex relationship with Christianity, one that again combines the political and the personal. Given Eugene's portrayal, the novel might seem critical of the religion, and indeed there's a lot here about how rigid it is. Yet the young priest Father Amaki, whom Kalimbi becomes infatuated with, offers a sort of counter-vision, a more kind and accepting view of the religion if you will, and Kalimbi also seems open to the more indigenous religious practices. Now, in this regard, Purple Hibiscus walks something of a fine line. Since we're looking at a coming-of-age story, it's easy to see how Adiche might've woven in some cheesy epiphany that would've asked us to believe Kalimbi resolved all of her major spiritual crises at fifteen.
Just while we're here, I don't get the epiphany thing in general; I find it reduces the complexity of people's inner conflicts to a simple "and then I realized this and everything was okay afterwards." Blame it on the modernists, I guess. Anyway, Kalimbi leaves the novel with a sense of what she doesn't want, but I credit Adiche for having the restraint not to hand her character everything they need to know about spirituality at, once again, the age of fifteen. I'm picky about this sort of realism, but Purple Hibiscus dodges a lot of the common traps the genre falls into. If anything, the lack of unbelievably huge revelations helps Purple Hibiscus seem more real. For that alone, I'm willing to forgive Adiche of a little heavy-handed symbolism. Symbolism's hard anyway.
The ensuing years have been pretty kind to Adiche so far. Her second and third novels, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, came out to massive acclaim and pretty big sales figures. She's also notable for being the only author in this series thus far whose work was showcased on a pop album, as Beyonce's 2013 single "***Flawless" sampled her TED talk "We Should All Be Feminists." I'm hoping that one day every author I enjoy somehow or other factors into a chart-topping album. I imagine it might be a little hard to incorporate Amelia Gray's gore or William Gaddis' dense prose into a dance-pop song, but I can dream, can't I?