Saturday, April 3, 2010

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus
Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
YA contemporary coming-of-age
Algonquin Books
reviewer: Ah Yuan

Summary:In the city of Enugu, Nigeria, fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother, Jaja, lead a privileged life. Their Papa is a wealthy and respected businessman; they live in a beautiful house; and they attend an exclusive missionary school. But, as Kambili reveals in her tender-voiced account, their home life is anything but harmonious. Her father, a fanatically religious man, has impossible expectations of his children and wife, and severely punishes them if they're less than perfect. Home is silent and suffocating.

When Kambili's loving and outspoken Aunty Ifeoma persuades her brother that the children should visit her in Nsukka, Kambili and Jaja take their first trip away from home. Once inside their Aunty Ifeoma's flat, they discover a whole new world. Books cram the shelves, curry and nutmeg permeate the air, and their cousins' laughter rings throughout the house. Jaja learns to garden and work with his hands, and Kambili secretly falls in love with a young charismatic priest.

When a military coup threatens to destroy the country and Kambili and Jaja return home changed by their newfound freedom, tension within the family escalates. And Kambili must find the strength to keep her loved ones together after her mother commits a desperate act.~ from GoodReads.Com

The Review: I was been told to read this book years ago by someone with a reading taste I trust, but for some strange reason I kept on putting it off. Then a couple months ago I was reminded to read this book by the author’s brilliant speech “The Danger of a Single Story” (watch it, especially if you have even the tiniest interest in storytelling) and I was like, how did I not get around to reading her works yet? So I finally checked the book out of the library earlier this month and damn, what a haunting read. Beautiful, intense, and I was a fool for not having read this sooner.

This is a story revolving around the domestic abuse of the narrator’s father. And yet, this is not a story of melodrama angst and heartbreak. Yes, there is a lot of anguish and pain and sadness in this novel, but underneath these painful moments is a spark of joy, and laughter. The premise of the story is not that of a victim enduring abuse, but a girl who gets a chance to step away momentarily from a world in which her and the whole family is subjugated to the mood swings of the father, as Kambili forges a world for herself in which she can start laughing without having her father’s opinions pervading and influencing her every move. Her transformation from the fearful daughter desperate to please her father to a girl who can smile and laugh on her own whim was an extraordinary journey that I’m so happy to have had to pleasure of reading. Purple Hibiscus is the kind of novel that the reader won’t forget soon after reading.

The novel sticks really close to Kambili’s head, so I’m thinking that the potential reader’s enjoyment of the novel is very dependent on much you like or sympathize with Kambili. I personally thought Kambili was a lovely protagonist, and loved being inside her head. I love seeing how timid and quiet she was at first, and then how she grew from thereon out. We’re so in her head and her personal problems and concerns that the problems with the riots and censoring in contemporary Nigeria take a backseat, but I don’t think this is a detriment to the novel at all. Reading from Kambili’s perspective was like having a glimpse at her innermost thoughts, a peek at her private diary, and there’s something so honest about the narration that I just completely fell in love with. This novel does more than just capture an amazingly authentic teenage voice – it moves you with its sincerity and honesty.

I really enjoyed the character interactions in this novel as well. Kambili and Amaka’s rocky cousin relationship was interesting to watch, as they start to step away from their misunderstandings of one another. And the rest of the family interactions were great too. I really liked how family was so central to this novel. It was really interesting to see the contrast between Kambili’s family and her aunt’s family, from the obvious differences (abusive relationship vs. loving relationship etc) to much subtler ways, like how Kambili’s family household is very quiet, versus her aunt’s boisterous laughter that rings around her own household. There was also some very nice class differences explored in this novel, which is nice to see. But my absolutely favourite aspect of this novel was the achingly sweet budding romance between Kambili and Amandi, a priest. Their growing affection for each other felt so natural, and the author captures the emotions of teenage first love so well. If I must compare her portrayals of first love with another YA author, it’d be Jenny Han, but more The Summer I Turned Pretty-esque as oppose to Shug-like. We are convinced by their portrayal of first love because it’s very honest. Also, Adichie writes like a dream, and the way she selects her words to describe that feeling of first love is so perfect and beautifully original.

The afternoon played across my mind as I got out of the car in front of the flat. I had smiled, ran, laughed. My chest was filled with something like bath foam. Light. The lightness was so sweet i tasted it on my tongue, the sweetness of an overripe bright yellow cashew fruit. Pg. 180

Doesn’t that just make you want to pick up the book ASAP?! Even if my not-very-elegantly-phrased review is not convincing you, read it for the beautiful, lush prose, at the very least.

The Verdict: One of the most beautiful pieces of fictive narratives I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Painful, sweet, and a spark of hopeful joy – the reader will sink into Kambili’s mindset right away as she forges a life for herself. I’ve been told that as this was Adichie’s first novel, her later works are much better. Which makes me really excited because as her writing is already so amazing here, I can’t wait to see how she tops it in Half a Yellow Sun

Rating: 5/5
Enjoyment: 100%!

Title and Cover Discussion: One of the things I didn’t get to talk about in the review was the purple hibiscus motif, which was subtly woven into the story to lead us to some of the novel’s most memorable scenes. Anyhow, the title is brilliant and if you’re curious about how Adichie uses the purple hibiscus as a symbol, I say read it to find out. 8D As for the cover... I don’t know, I’m really sick of cut-off female faces, and on top of that, the black-and-white photograph doesn’t do it any favours. Another cover has the hibiscus in actual purple, but I don’t really want to rate a cover if I haven’t seen it with my own two eyes. (I find that seeing covers online and in real life is two very different experiences.) Soooooo I’m going to cheat on the cover ratings and drop them. I just don’t feel fair with faulting a cover when there’s another one out there that may be better. It just brings too much attention to the old cover, ya know? Feel free to share your thoughts on the cover, or anything you want.


Ana S. said...

I loved this book too! And clearly I should read some Jenny Han.

Leslie @ This is the Refrain said...

Loved this book too! I read it a couple years ago. This was the cover it had then, but I like it better:

Ella Preuss said...

Loved this book. It was a first for me, first African novel I read, first of its kind I read.
Kambili is such a strong character, I couldn't help but to love her.
I also reviewed this book, here.

Mardel said...

I enjoyed your review of the book. Is this a paperback or hardback?

Color Online said...

Mardel, I've seen this version. It's paperback.

Please drop me an email.

Deborah Grayson Studios said...

I loved this book too. As everyone has noted, Adichie is an incredible storyteller. I posted a copy of the TED talk here for anyone who is interested:

I recently finished That thing Around your Neck. Loved that too. I am waiting to read Half a Yellow Sun because I want to wait until Adichie publishes something else! Deborah

Athira said...

I like the sound of this book. Sounds very strong and poignant! I am off to add it.

Jessie Carty said...

really wish more publishers would actually listen to book readers about cover art!

but sounds like a fantastic read that i need to check out :)

yuan said...

Thank you all so much for the lovely comments! I'm so happy to see that people are giving this book some love with your respective reviews, and thank you for linking them! And I hope to those that I've persuaded to check this book out will enjoy it as much as I have! (Or even half as much, as my love for this book overflows. 8D)

Cory Tell said...

Is this book available online?