Adichie’s debut novel is a thoroughly engaging and exquisitely crafted piece of work. As a first novel it is nothing short of astonishing. To the outside world, fifteen-year-old Kambili, her seventeen-year-old brother Jaja, and their self-effacing mother Beatrice, are living the dream life in Enugu, Nigeria.
However, behind the enviable gates of the estate, provided by their benevolent businessman, father, and husband, Eugene Achike, life is less than rosy. Eugene’s religious fanaticism and overbearing hand end up imprisoning and incapacitating those whom he professes to love the most. He metes out severe punishments for minor transgressions, leaving in his wake physical and emotional scars. As if the pressures of home life are not enough, the children must deal with the social and emotional ups and downs of adolescence, peer relations, and petty rivalries.
A ray of light enters this grim picture in the person of Eugene’s widowed sister, who invites the children to spend time with her family in the university town of Nsukka.The visit to Aunty Ifeoma’s modest home in the university apartments begins a series of life-changing experiences with far-reaching consequences for everyone in the Achike family. In the end, the most decisive actions come from the least expected sources.
'Purple Hibiscus' is a multi-dimensional novel. It is a tender first-person narrative of a teenage girl who finds her own voice, despite years of abuse and intimidation that have left her stuttering. It is a story of love, the strange love in her nuclear family that generates no laughter, the nurturing love that holds her extended family together, and the personal turmoil and excitement of her first crush. Kambili’s narrative voice is fresh and authentic, her English enriched with local Igbo expressions and peppered with Nigerianisms such as: “the girl is a ripe agbogho! Very soon a strong young man will bring us palm wine!”
Set in the Igbo region of eastern Nigeria, the story draws the reader into the environment and cultural experiences of a significant segment of Nigerian society. From the scenic hillsides of Enugu and Nsukka to the unpaved rural roads of Abba and Aokpe, each locale is essential to the main characters’ well-being, providing a much needed balance between the busy urban centres and the ancestral and kinship base of the countryside. The author, herself an Igbo, is obviously familiar with her terrain and the urban-rural balance. One gets a taste of the shades and nuances of contemporary Nigerian life: the rich diversity of its peoples and their traditions, their staple and snack foods, and the variety of their religious beliefs.
In telling the story of Kambili and the extraordinary events that transform her world, Adichie manages to present and explore a number of important issues rather intricately. Her characters are complex and credible. On the question of domestic abuse, for instance, Eugene is at once the most courageous, generous, and compassionate citizen - receiving recognition from locals as well as world organizations - and the most unforgiving tyrant. His loved ones - ironically, his victims - are dazzled by his enormous persona, thus perpetuating the cycle. Adichie courageously raises other poignant questions without ever resorting to preaching. Mandatory celibacy in the Catholic clergy is a logical issue when a young priest becomes the object of romantic affection; the legitimacy of Igbo traditional religion is obvious when observed close to Catholic ritual.
She captures the resilience of the citizens faced with political instability and series of military coups; the struggle to maintain intellectual freedom and autonomy in higher education; and most of all, the preponderance of poverty and want in the midst of so much national wealth. Bright intellectuals and educators flee the country to avoid rising autocratic rule, intimidation, and deteriorating social services.
One minor criticism is the absence of a glossary for this novel. Adichie does a good job of placing most Igbo expressions in comprehensible context, but this leads to frustration with the reader wanting to find the translation of a term, the meaning of which is, at best, ambiguous, for instance: “’Will the fuel make it, Mom?’ Obiora asked. “Amarom, we can try”’.
This is, however, a very minor criticism of what is a wonderful debut novel.
Citation: Ruby A. Bell-Gam. Review of Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, Purple Hibiscus. H-AfrTeach, H-Net Reviews. December, 2004.
My next destination is the neighbouring country of Chad, linked to Nigeria by a narrow border in the north east, alongside Lake Chad. Despite its proximity however, this is no simple journey, starting with the need for a single-entry visa costing US$100 for 1 month.
Worse still, however, decades of civil war following independence from France in 1960, along with more recent rebellions and rebel incursions from neighbouring countries, have left Chad’s transport infrastructure in tatters.
Rail travel into the country is impossible, and roads are in disrepair and are typically unpaved. Equally perilous on the roads are the coupeurs de route (road bandits). Ex-pats were attacked in two separate incidents in 2005 on one major stretch, resulting in the death of one Catholic nun. The rickety and poorly maintained buses are scarcely less of a danger on these roads... and it is equally impossible to reach Chad by boat from Nigeria unless crossing illegally through Lake Chad.
However, I am keen not to rely too much on anonymous air travel (itself a circuitous route between these countries) so I take my life into my hands and go by road... Although there are no official border crossings between the two countries, it’s possible to make a quickish – if hair-raising - transit across Cameroon.
In Nigeria, I take a bush taxi from Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria to the border crossing into Cameroon at Ngala. On the Cameroon side I ask for a laissez-passer whichs to allows me to make the two-hour traverse of Cameroon (where I will be returning soon).
We head to Maroua (the capital of the Far North Region of Cameroon) where I pick up a rickety minibus to the Chad border point at Kousséri. Here I pick up a motorcycle taxi over the bridge into the border town of Nguelé, stopping once more to catch an even more rickety minibus to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Finally, I take one of the eregular buses in the capital on a bumpy six hour journey to Moundou. Thus I arrive, tired, dusty, shaken and relieved, in the second largest city in Chad, and the next leg of my journey 'The Plagues of Friendship' a novel by native author Sem Miantoloum Beasnael, a tale of childhood friendship that goes tragically sour...