Purple Hibiscus is one of them weird novels that I originally would not have picked up. However as part of a reading challenge I undertook at the start of the year I had to read a book set in a different country to the one I lived in. Set in Nigeria, the novel seemed the natural choice when I chanced across it while browsing for books to buy. The novel follows Kambili Achike, a fifteen year old girl who is shy and inhibited. She lives with her brother Jaja, her mother Beatrice and her father Eugene. She frequently has to deal with her father’s abusive behaviour behind closed doors, stemming from his strict Catholic beliefs. Things change when she and Jaja go to stay with their Auntie Ifeoma, who is more liberal and practices a different form of Catholicism compared to Eugene. Consequently her journey to adulthood begins as she soon begins to discover more about herself and the world around her.
The story is clearly a coming of age story where the character comes to terms with the world around them, growing up and maturing into an adult in the process. The theme of growing up and maturity, especially with regards to the way she distances herself and moves on from her father’s excessive religious beliefs. Her approach to religion is one of the ways in which she evolves, gradually moving away from the fear of committing sin which plagued her life while living under her father. A contrast with this is shown not just in the contrasting figures of her Auntie Ifeoma and her father, but also between her father and Father Amadi, a young priest whom she develops a crush on through the duration of the story.
Throughout all of this the story provides a lot of insight into the political climate withing Nigeria. The political aspects of the novel are interesting. Auntie Ifeoma is a lecturer at the University of Nigeria and the issues she suffers despite being in what would be a cosy position within most of the modern world. The idea of someone within education still suffering and being neglected by the state is something that would be unthinkable for a lot of people and thus the very notion of such a thing happening was kind of shopping. When Auntie Ifeoma leaves Nigeria at the end of the novel I’m kind of rooting for her because the Nigerian government and the University of Nigeria have done nothing but treat her like dirt.
With regard to drawbacks, I felt like the protagonist herself was a bit passive in places. I understood her being passive at the beginning since the point of her story arc is that she is shy and passive and has to try and grow out of it. Ultimately though she seems to just get caught up in the interesting events of everyone else’s lives, while having moments where she grows as a person. She never does anything interesting herself. Usually the interesting things seem to happen to others. In fact every other character seemed to act as a big mover in the climax apart from her. When her brother goes to jail, taking the blame for their mother killing their father with poison, I felt like Kambili never did much aside from take care of her mother until Jaja is finally released. So in some respects the book does have a few weaknesses. It promises some good character development for Kambili but I can’t decide on whether the novel delivered on that front or not.
Overall the novel is okay. The slice of life plot and Kambili’s passive role within the story kind of ruined it to me somewhat. It was almost like Kambili was there to act as an observer to events as times, something which seemed to hit home at the climax when events suddenly seemed to spiral out of her control. Despite this the novel provided some interesting insight into Nigerian culture, and the conflicts between the old religions and western religions such as Catholicism and the roles both things play in people’s lives. Ultimately this was a novel that I liked far more than I expected to, since I tend not to read novels like this, but still had some latent potential which it could have tapped into.