About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Purple Hibiscus

This morning, I finished my 19th book of the year: Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I knew next to nothing about it when I picked it off the library shelf; I was actually looking for Half a Yellow Sun, one of Adichie's later works (which I don't remember much about at this point either) ... but figured since that wasn't available and I've been trying to broaden my literary horizons, I'd start with her debut novel. I'm glad I did; it's a subtle, poetic coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria, with more than a touch of allegory mixed in.

To be continued ... Full review, complete with quotes and everything, coming soon; for now, though, Real Life beckons.

[next morning] OK, I'm back. In terms of setting the stage, Adichie packs an amazing amount into the book's first sentence: "Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere." The family's strict Catholicism, enforced by a strict, often brutal father; Jaja's growing defiance; and the isolation that comes with living a life of privilege in the midst of poverty and unrest are all important themes in the novel. When the story begins, the protagonist/ narrator, 15-year-old Kambili, seeks only to be a good Catholic and meet her father's nigh-impossible standards, thereby avoiding the punishments whose severity becomes clearer as the novel progresses.

Tension builds, however, when Kambili's Aunt Ifeoma convinces her brother to let Kambili and her brother Jaja spend a week with her, ostensibly so she can take them on a religious pilgrimage. Ifeoma, a widowed college professor, and her 3 children are probably middle-class, but this is a big step down from Kambili's wealthy family; they live in a small, run-down apartment where water, electricity, and petrol are scarce, and while there seems to be enough to eat, meat and other luxuries are carefully stretched and rationed. At the same time, they introduce Kambili and Jaja to a way of life much broader than any they've been permitted before: household chores, popular music and television, and a far more generous and relaxed brand of Catholicism than their father's (this last embodied by Father Amadi, a young, energetic priest who captivates Kambili almost immediately). Kambili and Jaja also begin to know their grandfather, who their own father has disowned for his refusal to convert to Catholicism. In her home, their lives take on the character of Aunty Ifeoma's purple hibiscus, which Kambili describes in the first chapter as, "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." As you might expect, this lays a foundation for conflict once they return to their father's house.

The characters in the story develop much as the title flower might unfold: slowly, without revealing everything there is at first. Kambili seems to be a perfect Daddy's girl, until Aunt Ifeoma, hearing her daughter Amaka heckle her cousin yet again for being rich and spoiled, prods Kambili to open her mouth and give it back to her. Jaja could be any rebellious adolescent, until his younger cousin's workload makes him think about his own responsibility to his family. Papa brutalizes his wife's and children's bodies in hopes of saving their souls, but he's also incredibly generous to the poor and needy, even when no one knows about it. The one character we don't really get to know is Kambili's mother, but this makes sense in the context of the book's eventual climax and resolution.

As noted above, there's also an allegorical element to the novel, although Adichie doesn't quite hit you over the head with it. The story is bookended by Kambili's description of the hibiscus in the first chapter, and Aunt Ifeoma's scoffing at those who suggest Nigerians are incapable of self-rule at the end:
"There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time. It is like telling a crawling baby who tries to walk, and then falls back on his buttocks, to stay there. As if the adults walking past him did not all crawl, once."
I'll admit my own ignorance of Nigerian history and politics, but it seems evident that Kambili and Jaja represent the future of Nigeria; they reach adulthood not through blind acceptance of the white man's European-style Catholicism, nor through living under a dictator's repression, but by taking on adult sacrifices and responsibilities.

If you haven't yet surmised as much, I really enjoyed this book. It stands quite ably on its own, as a coming-of-age story; it's also (at least for me) an accessible place to begin if you want to move beyond Things Fall Apart and sample African fiction in a more contemporary setting. 4 out of 5 bookmarks.

Coming soon: The contemporary African fiction theme (is that racist or reductionist in itself? How many different cultures are we talking about here? Would we think to talk about "European fiction" or even "Asian fiction?") continues with Athol Fugard's Tsotsi, set in South Africa.

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