Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Book Review)

Don’t read this book alone! No, seriously, this book is so unforgettable, emotionally stirring and layered with meaning that you absolutely should not read this book alone. This is a highly allegorical novel with many hidden meanings waiting to be discovered in a lengthy discussion among friends. Needless to say, this one has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf. I read an e-loan copy from my local library, however, I am going to purchase this book for my home library. I can assure you that I will not do this book justice in this review. Also, I resisted the urge to read other pertinent online discussions because I wanted to provide my unbiased opinion here.

Purple Hibiscus, first published in 2003, is a novel set in modern day Nigeria. The story centers around one well-to-do, native family and is told in first person narrative by the 15 year old daughter Kambili. She lives with her father, a highly devout Catholic who owns a newspaper and several factories, and her mother and brother. When the country undergoes a military coup, the children are sent to live with their aunt who lives outside the city. Life at the aunt’s home is entirely different compared to the rigorous and oppressive living conditions at home. The narrative follows how the family adapts to these changes and the defining moments that shape the children’s future. The story moves from a single day in the present (Palm Sunday), back in time and then moves forward again. I will attempt below to describe the main reasons why I was enthralled by this novel.

Language. Adichie has such an artistic way with words. She literally paints a picture on the page. One such example is how Kambili describes her father’s smile, “his face breaking open like a coconut with the brilliant white meat inside.” The visual image of the white teeth in contrast with the brown skin was compelling. Also, the rough hard texture of the coconut shell mirrors the rigidity of the father’s personality. Adiche’s writing is rich, colorful, emotional, and raw.

The allegories and symbolism. This novel is full of allegory and symbols. The purple hibiscus, the gigantic, 3-story, white house in the center of the village, the coup existing in the country, many of the supporting characters and the newspaper are just a few of the many elements which have deeper meaning. Even after finishing this novel, one can continue to unravel layers and layers of assertions that are made through the characters, events and items described. As mentioned above, this book would be excellent for a group discussion to delve into the possible hidden meanings.

Character development. The main and supporting characters are developed well with the greatest reader/character connections established with Kamili and her brother Jaja. The story is told from a teenager’s point of view, and the author expertly demonstrates a child’s yearning desire for a parent’s love, approval and emotional support. Adiche truly delivers in portraying the child’s thoughts and inner psyche. One can make connections with the children and their father, congregants and a church father figure, and Christians and Father God. One character I struggled to understand was the family’s father. When I almost gave up trying to understand his motivation, the author revealed part of his past which influenced his behavior. I would liked to have known more of his past and really understood what was going on in his head. I would have also liked to know more about the mother’s dreams and interests, but perhaps there were none, further supporting the lack of identity of these family members outside of the father.

Strategic use of imagery in setting. The physical environment, (dust, rain, storms) played a huge impact on the major transitional events of the story. I really liked the use of natural elements which reflected the psychological changes taking place.

Towards the end of the novel, I started to feel a slight disconnect from the characters. They began to change significantly in their thoughts and actions, and I felt that I couldn’t keep up with how fast they were changing/coming of age. At the end of the novel, I was sad to say goodbye to this family, and I was left with so many unanswered questions about their future. I immediately started searching online for a possible sequel. The family’s fate could really go in any direction, and I suppose that may have been intentional, leading the reader to understand that there are many possibilities for the path of any country, community or family. It is the conscious choices that will determine the outcome. The ending leaves a quiet but moving call to action.

Note: The novel does include some graphic descriptions of physical violence (brutal beatings, assassination, etc). Please keep that in mind if those depictions are something you are not comfortable reading. I do feel that these details contributed significantly to the author’s purpose.

I received no compensation for writing this review, and this book was obtained through library loan. All opinions are my own.

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