Kambili lives her life quietly. She goes to school, goes to church, does her homework. If she can think of something to say that will please her father, she does so, but usually someone else thinks of it first, and so she remains silent. It’s safer that way.
Kambili’s father loves his family, but believes deeply that they must conform to a particular image of Western Christianity. Any deviation from that image–including any interest in the family’s Nigerian heritage, or association with family members who choose to live in traditional Nigerian ways — is met with rage and often devastating violence. Kambili and, to a lesser extent, her brother, Jaja, have adapted themselves to this atmosphere, shaping their behaviour, their words, even their thoughts to fit the norm imposed by their father. And then their Aunt Ifeoma invites Kambili and Jaja to come and stay for a while with her and her children. Though Aunt Ifeoma is also a Christian, she has not seen a need to separate faith from heritage so completely. Jaja fits into this new way of living quickly, but Kambili has a hard time reconciling the glorified Western-ness she’s internalised with the confidence her aunt and cousins demonstrate in their engagement with Nigerian culture. Though she gradually learns to embrace the freedom held out by her extended family, the consequences for her immediate family will leave them reeling.
Purple Hibiscus is definitely a novel for older readers, but a valuable one for those who are up for the challenge. Kambili’s journey is complex and painful, asking readers to extend compassion not only to her, but to the whole of her family in a situation that is both unfamiliar and close to home: the process of learning to understand oneself in relation to, but apart from one’s father.
Listen to Chimamanda Adichie herself talk about the Danger of a Single Story. A really beautiful TED talk well worth the 20 minutes:
A final note: If you can, read the audiobook first. Hearing the story with the proper pronunciation of unfamiliar words and names adds a lot.