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.