Book Review: The Paradoxes of ‘Purple Hibiscus’

GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a rising sophomore at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is powerfully unsettling. Kambili, a Nigerian teenager growing up in the middle of a military coup, struggles to reconcile her contradicting views of her family and world. Her father is widely regarded as a saint but transforms into a tyrant behind closed doors. His charity stops at home, where he mirrors the harsh authoritarian government he is working to overthrow. Only once Kambili and her brother Jaja are sent to live with their aunt, a university professor who believes in cultivating independence and curiosity, do they begin to realize there is more to life than their father’s strict rules. As Kambili begins to grow closer to her aunt, she drifts away from her father, who decides to tighten his grip on her life. Kambili’s unwavering devotion to her father begins to falter and as tensions in the family escalate, she searches for the strength to keep her family together.

Adichie understands the power of storytelling. In this character-driven novel, she is able to weave together disconcerting contradictions in a way that provokes an emotional response. When Kambili’s father flies into fits of rage there is an immediate repulsion. Then there is the difficulty of accepting his alter ego:  the well-respected person who praises his children when they do well in school and refuses to let a militaristic government silence the Nigerian people’s right to free speech. Then there is frustration, that the winner of a human rights award so blatantly disregards the rights of those closest to him. There is no stark contrast between good and evil, no hero and villain. The turmoil in this novel is brought to life by Adichie’s rich language. Phrases like “the scalding liquid that burned his love onto my tongue” hint at the distorted relationship between Kambili and her father. Even the symbol in the title itself, the purple hibiscus, represents a new beginning and hope.

While Purple Hibiscus shouldn’t be treated as a replacement for research on Nigerian culture, there are also occasional glances into a culture that differs vastly from our own. The authoritarian regime that actively suppresses free speech and truth is reflected in Kambili’s family, in a household of suffocating silence. Additionally, Adichie throws in the occasional phrase in Igbo as well as mentions of Nigerian food, songs, and celebrations. Most readers will not be familiar with the meanings of these phrases, but Adichie cleverly incorporates definitions into the story. Most importantly, Kambili’s family is not a typical Nigerian family and so the culture of abuse and oppression she sees in her own house does not represent Nigerian culture as a whole but still provides new perspectives and voices worth examining.

The beauty of Purple Hibiscus lies in its ability to provide an infuriating and emotionally charged story while simultaneously sending out a message of hope. There is no Hollywood ending; instead, a shocking reiteration of the themes leaves the reader unsure how to feel. However, there are glimpses of hope that prevent the book from being a depressing tearjerker. Kambili learns to laugh, speak her mind, and love unconditionally. This is not a story about a girl who is broken beyond repair; it is the story of her growth and maturity.

Purple Hibiscus does bring in perspectives and situations that the typical reader may not have had much exposure to, but the goal isn’t to alienate the audience or create a sense of detachment. Instead, the voices in Purple Hibiscus resonate with the reader. As Kambili’s confidante, we are exposed to ideas that help expand our horizons; however, Adichie is also able to tap into the power of the shared human experience. In that way, Purple Hibiscus creates yet another paradox. Adichie forms a connection between the reader and Kambili in order to reveal themes and ideas that remain relevant across the globe, and her engaging style makes it difficult to put down. Purple Hibiscus is a must-read.