Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s first novel, published in 2003. It follows 15-year-old Kambili, who lives in postcolonial Nigeria with her extremely religious family. Throughout the novel, she learns that perhaps not everything her father says and does is absolutely perfect, and that there are a lot of things she doesn’t know about her family and the world.
This being Chimamanda’s first novel, I thought it wasn’t quite as good as her other two, Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. The book doesn’t have that much of a plot – it mostly follows the every-day life of Kambili and her family, until something happens and she visits her aunt for the first time. Kambili is awkward and has very specific ideas about how to behave, so at first her encounter with her cousins is difficult and kind of sad to read about. Kambili has never laughed before and she doesn’t really know how to talk to people.
When she first visits her aunt, the story starts to pick up. I was worried it was just going to be about her mother, father and brother (which would have been quite boring for my personal taste), but reading about her aunt and her cousins, and especially her interactions with them as she grows more comfortable, was absolutely delightful.
I loved most of the characters. Kambili is shy and difficult to get close to, and I think she made a wonderful main character, with her silent, observant way. Her aunt is delightful – she’s a university professor and a wonderful mother who did a really good job with her children. Kambili’s cousins were all great to read about. Her female cousin, who at first can’t stand her (because Kambili is rich and quiet and weird), slowly grows fond of her and they develop a lovely friendship. Her older male cousin is hilarious – he’s very smart and opinionated, and always talks about politics and the government, even though he’s only 14 years old. Most of the time he’s being serious, but I still found his way of talking about things really funny. Kambili’s brother is perhaps my favourite character. He grew up in the same circumstances as Kambili, but he managed to distance himself from the close-minded and extremely religious ideas of his father.
Religion is obviously a big part of this story, which at first I really didn’t like. I have been to church perhaps 10 times in my whole life, so I don’t know much about anything Catholic, and I usually stay away from it, because I find religion very unsettling. I know it can be comforting and a safe place for a lot of people, but it makes me really uncomfortable. I got used to the heavy presence of religion in the book quickly though, and was able to appreciate it for what it was. The book is not preachy in any way.
Something I found mildly difficult to read about was Kambili’s close family. Her father is despicable. Everyone in town loves him because he’s generous and religious and donates to lots of charities, but back home he’s violent and abusive. What I hated was how Kambili adored him and loved him no matter what. It made perfect sense in the novel – she grew up with the idea that everything her father does is perfect, so of course she would never question his actions. But I still found is annoying and wanted to scream at Kambili to open her eyes. What made me even angrier than Kambili was her mother though. I understand how difficult it is to get out of an abusive relationship, especially when you have children, but I just got so angry at Kambili’s mother throughout the book, at how she just kept going back to this monster of a man and dragged her children along. She never even stood up for them! I really couldn’t stand her, even if her behaviour was understandable in a way.
I would like to point out how great Chimamanda’s writing is in this novel. She has a magical talent for describing places and making them come alive. I’ve read all three of her novels now, and I almost feel like I went to Nigeria for each of them. The way she writes about the country makes it feel like you can actually feel the heat of the summer and smell the air and hear the neighbours. I always get completely immersed in her books.
In conclusion, even though I didn’t enjoy this as much as her other novels, it’s still a wonderful book with believable characters, beautiful writing and a smart message. I would perhaps recommend starting with this one if you’re new to her work, as this way, if you read her novels in chronological order, her books will get better and better.
‘Till next time and happy reading!