by Jessica LeAnne Jones
I have this thing where I despise Young Adult literature. It’s not YA’s fault per se; because of a shift in how female characters are portrayed in popular YA novels, I’ve stayed away from the genre for years. So finding out that Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie is a YA story came as a shock. While it’s a coming-of-age tale of a young Nigerian girl, the book’s discussion of religion, abuse, government, and activism issues exudes more maturity and understanding than most adult novels.
Purple Hibiscus tells the story of Kimbili, the daughter of wealthy Nigerian businessman Eugene. From the first page, Kimbili lets the readers know that their home isn’t as happy as it looks; from the outside, the Achike family is devout and upstanding. Eugene runs a number of successful companies and is the city’s primary caregiver. What the community doesn’t see, though, is that Eugene abuses his power within the family when his wife or children act outside of his strict guidelines. Yet Eugene can’t control the new, corrupt Nigerian regime, and he refuses to bow to their demands.
While Eugene battles with the government, Kimbili and Ja Ja leave to stay with their Aunt Ifeome and her children. This is when Kimbili begins to see the world from a different point of view. She resists the less structured, less religious life at first. However, Aunt Ifeome knows the kind of life her brother forces on his children, and she allows Kimbili room to grow at her own pace.
Adichie touches a number of dichotomies and issues in Purple Hibiscus. Excluding abuse of power (which is seen in both the new Nigerian government as well as Eugene’s actions towards his family) she doesn’t pass judgment on how the characters live or worship. Instead, she presents all ways of life as valid. There is religious tension between Catholic Eugene and his traditional father. However, we also see difference in Catholicism in how the characters exemplify their form of worship. While Eugene is seen as a morally upright church member, his religion has warped his world view and caused him to use that same dogmatic approach to fatherhood. However, Aunt Ifeome and Father Amadi show the Achike children that religion isn’t the perfect recitation of prayers and humble appearances at church. Instead, these adults combine religion with pragmatism.
Politics play a large role in the novel as all the characters fight against the new regime. Eugene refuses to let the government censor his newspaper. Aunt Ifeome, a university professor, remains outspoken against the new regime regardless of pressure the government and school place on her. Both characters fight the government for different reasons, which Adichie clearly defines with their temperaments.
The one aspect of Purple Hibiscus of which I’m unsure is Kimbili’s relationship with Father Amadi. Kimbili is fifteen years old for the majority of the novel, and Amadi’s age is never explicitly stated though we’re told he’s relatively young for a priest. I could just be overreacting; this is possibly an acceptable age difference for this culture. Regardless, it still made me uncomfortable that the only thing keeping this adult man from dating this child were his priestly vows. Thankfully, this relationship is incredibly small in the overall scope of the good that Purple Hibiscus does.
All I can say about Purple Hibiscus is that it became one of my favorite books overnight. I couldn’t read it fast enough, which is rare praise coming from me. I think that adults and teens alike can learn from this book and appreciate its complex handling of difficult issues. Besides its outstanding moral compass, readers will fully enjoy the story, beautiful prose, and vivid descriptions.