Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Although I don’t think her debut novel is necessarily as polished as her later novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stunned me with her perfectly crafted story in Purple Hibiscus (published 2003). It’s full of symbolism, but the touching story of a girl coming to terms with life in general (her abusive home environment in particular) is not suffocated in the midst of the details.

Purple Hibiscus is primarily a story about finding peace and hope. It’s a coming-of-age story for a sheltered and well-to-do girl in Nigeria in modern times as she discovers her sexuality and her ability to speak up for herself. But the analytic types, like me, will certainly also appreciate the care with which Adichie set up the parallels and symbols for Kambili’s growth.

Before I began, I knew Purple Hibiscus was about child abuse in some degree, and I worried about reading a story with that subject. I do think one should know before picking up the book that emotional and physical abuse is a key part of young Kambili’s life. Yet, the perspective was different than I’d worried. Adichie touched on Kambili’s struggles without making it too hopeless, and ultimately, Kambili and her brother grow. I don’t think people need be concerned about the subject matter; it’s a book about growth trough trials in general, and although the abuse is heart-breaking, it’s approachable.

I love the contrasts in the novel. The religious hypocrisy compared to the native traditions was particularly striking to me.  I loved the purple hibiscus versus red hibiscus, the dichotomy between rich and poor, and especially the characters that I felt I knew by the end of the novel, like the Catholic priest. I loved Kambili’s growth through the novel. I will admit I was a little disappointed by the conclusion. The ending just seemed….odd. But I did finish it late at night so I wonder if it felt rushed because I was rushing?

At any rate, I also loved how Adichie has made Nigeria into a familiar setting in this novel. I think sometimes American shy away from “foreign” novels. Purple Hibiscus did not seem foreign to me, and I think that is a testament to Adichie’s ability to create the scenes and characters. I could picture the setting, even though I know little about Nigeria.

Unlike many of the books I’ve read recently, I didn’t know much about Purple Hibiscus before I began reading it, so I think I’d like to keep this post rather general (and thus, short). I also find myself not wanting to talk about too much because the novel isn’t full of layers of depth as some of the other works I’ve read recently. It’s not one I see myself rereading as frequently as Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which left me wanting to immediately reread it because of the depth of the characters and events.

Finally, I say Purple Hibiscus is not perfectly polished because the connections and foreshadowing that I enjoyed finding were rather obvious. Because it’s a coming-of-age story, and a story about parental abuse, the story arc was in some respects predictable. But I nevertheless greatly enjoyed reading more of Adichie’s fine writing, and Adichie obviously succeeded in crafting an original story that I couldn’t put down. I was invested in the characters. I wanted to see how they would grow, and I hoped for the best.

I personally think Purple Hibiscus would be a good introduction to literary fiction for a young adult. Given the ages of the protagonists, the ease of reading, and the abundance of foreshadowing, symbols and other clues of character development, I think it could be studied in school too. That is, if youth these days are able to handle serious discussion about abuse. I personally think the issues are well handled and the novel as a whole is superbly written.

Cover image above from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2003 edition, which I read.


Reviewed on March 21, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Wonderful review, Rebecca. I have a copy of Half a Yellow Sun but haven’t made it a reading priority… I think I worry it will go over my head. But your review has made me see that Adichie is an important and talented writer who I should read! Thanks for the reminder!

    • Steph » I do think there is far more in HALF OF A YELLOW SUN that goes over our heads. That’s what makes it so wonderful. It’s a book that can be read at many different levels and each time one reads it, he or she will notice some other beautiful aspect of the writing of story. PURPLE HIBISCUS lacks the depth but still has the beautiful writing and inspiring story, I think. I do hope you give Adichie a try.

  • I have no idea at all why I haven’t read Half of a Yellow Sun in the three years since I read Purple Hibiscus, considering my father owned it and we lived in the same town for two and two-thirds of those three years. (I am dumb.) I thought Purple Hibiscus was beautifully written, if depressing, and Adichie is obviously a madly gifted writer.

  • I also found the ending strange. It’s a well-written book and I also enjoyed it. I have not read Half of a Yellow Sun yet. Your review is really personal. Thanks.

    • Kinna » I struggled to put into words WHY the ending was strange. I think *spoilers for those that haven’t read it* that what was odd to me was that the mother was the one to administer the poison. She was so submissive and passive for the bulk of the book, it seemed unrealistic to me that she would suddenly take so much initiative. How would she have grown in the book? I saw no evidence of it. So I guess I felt the end was an unrealistic one given the realistic strain of strength in the rest of the novel.

      I do hope you get to HALF OF A YELLOW SUN. It is so powerful.

      • *spoilers* really? I definitely felt it coming because I knew at some point they were going to break free of Papa and in that situation the only things to do are run or fight. Adiche made it clear after Mama changed her mind about running that that was not going happen. Given that, poison makes sense for Mama because it requires no confrontation with Papa.

    • Nymeth » I’m looking forward to more Adichie, even if it’s only a volume of stories (I love basking in her prose, so I’m afraid the stories will be too short and therefore disappointing….)

  • I’ve not read anything by Adichie yet, though Half of a Yellow Sun is already on my list. It sounds like this one should be on there, too. Thanks for the lovely review!

  • I finished reading this book recently (thoughts on my blog pending), and I loved it – not as much as Half Of A Yellow Sun, but it was still amazing. There’s just something about her writing style that makes the story sound more “real” if you know what I mean?

    • anothercookiecrumbles » I didn’t love it as much as HALF OF A YELLOW SUN either but simply because the later has so much depth to it. Simply amazing. And yes, she is a wonderful writer.

  • @Rebecca, I must say that both PURPLE HIBISCUS and HALF OF A YELLOW SUN are masterfully done. But I wonder what’s in the later that is not in the former that’s making u wanna go back and read it again and again. Anywho, my concern now is to clear those who think that PURPLE HIBISCUS does not end well. The tradition is already there (T.S Eliot, TRADITION AND INDIVIDUAL TALENT). There are sequences which all good literature must tap from. It is called, archetypes. Considering that PURPLE HIBISCUS is a modern text, can’t we atleast look at Papa and Jaja as scapegoats? Yes, scapegoats, but not in the classical sense of scapegoatism. I see both as scapegoats whose faces has changed, in the sense of new ethos. Papa dies, or is made away with so that the household will have their freedom. Jaja on the other hand, accepts to suffer for the sin of his mother… This is already a recurrent motif in literature.

  • Purple Hibiscus is a thrilling and exceptionally interesting novel which only could come from within the mind of a powerful author. distinctively different from any kinda nigerian novel.Thumbs up!!!

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