I hardly know where to start.
Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus explores the complex nature of familial relationships, meeting unhealthy depictions of love with even unhealthier examples of violence and abuse in a wealthy, religious family in Nigeria.
Kambili’s father is not so much a parent as he is a tyrant. He runs a strict household. Any imperfect result is a disappointment, and every failure is met unacceptable. Kambili and her brother Jaja live very much in fear of their father.
And yet they—primarily Kambili—desire his approval. It’s impossible to distinguish the line between that desire and the fear of losing the approval because the two are inherently linked.
I have never read a book that depicted the effects of emotional abuse on children with such brutal accuracy. Kambili, under the harsh, abusive rule of Eugene Achike, is soft-spoken. She often seems scared to speak. No, not seems; is. Whether she is eating dinner with her parents and brother, and uncomfortably visiting with her far more progressive aunt and cousins, she wants what she says to be the right thing. She clearly doesn’t want the negative repercussions of saying something wrong, but also goes so far as to want what she says to solve things, to soothe situations, diffuse tension. Earn affection from her father. A smile or even a kind word from him would be enough.
Witnessing Kambili’s struggle to forge an identity in spite of her environmental circumstances is intense and, at times, heartbreaking. While staying with her aunt (Ifeoma) and cousins, she is exposed to a new world. In this temporary home, she listens to her cousin’s rebellious music, develops a crush on a young pastor, all so gingerly and tentatively that it’s almost at a whisper. But it is, nevertheless, a revolt. A revolt against the prohibitive religious upbringing, and the restrictions it has imposed upon her.
Ultimately, it is her mother, Beatrice, who takes action against Eugene. Another natural response to violence is defense, protecting yourself and your loved ones. Beatrice—after two miscarriages caused by Eugene’s abuse—poisons him.
It’s not only Kambili whose identity has been stifled by the abusive patriarch. Not a single member of that family makes it through unscathed. Without Eugene, although Beatrice suffers greatly—presumably feeling guilty for having killed him—Kambili is more secure in her identity. Three years later, at 18, she is free to be more herself, a truer version than she was previously allowed to explore. Jaja, having taken the rap for his mother, is about to be released from prison and doesn’t regret it. The siblings, bound by abusive an abusive upbringing, will experience what it means to be free, together.
This was my first Adichie novel. I found her writing so elegant and visceral, I immediately bought Americanah so I’d have it ready (I am extremely eager to discuss it as soon as possible). The tension of the Achike household and its effect on Kambili were evident in the writing style. The tightness of it, every word packed to the brim, humming with anxiety and fear. I couldn’t help but feel for Kambili. Adichie did a remarkable job of developing the teen’s voice, in illustrated her complex coming-of-age. This is the kind of writing I embarked on this (unofficial) project to read. Poignant, brimming with meaning, and so sharp you can feel it.