Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Purple Hibiscus~ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I’ve just finished re-reading Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I found it much more enjoyable second time around.  The story is completely engaging.  Corruption, and violence are central themes.  Yet the atmosphere that Adichie creates is not one of fear and oppression, but of vitality and vibrancy.  This is a book full of human warmth.  The characters are wonderfully drawn: Obiora with his glasses slipping down his nose; Papa Nnukwu praying to the dawn; Kambili learning how to smile.  Nigeria itself is also brought to life in the pages of this text: the colours; the smells; the tastes and the sounds of it.    It is so evocative that I feel like I have travelled there myself and have sat in Aunty Ifeoma’s kitchen, with the fuming kerosene stove, where I peeled vegetables with exoctic names and listened-in on conversations.  It’s a moving and honest depiction of life in Nigeria and it is not surprising to learn that it was written by the author while in America, sick for home.  

Adichie uses sensual description to delight the reader, but also to add symbolic meaning to the text.  For example, consider how the colour red is often associated with Eugene and their home place in Enugu.  There we find the red hibiscuses, the blood on the stairs, Father Benedict’s robes, the words of Kambili’s textbook turning into red, even Papa’s red satin pajamas, ‘ that lent a slightly red shimmer to his eyes’.   The colour often suggests anger and passion and so is perfectly in keeping with the plot.

In contrast, the colour blue, often associated with feelings of calm and solitude, is repeatedly connected to the characters of Father Amadi, and Aunty Ifeoma and other positive figures.  Of the former Kambili says, ‘Father Amadi’s car smelled like him, a clean scent of a clear azure sky’.  Her grandfather, Papa Nnukwu, dressed in a wrapper, with ‘faded blue edges’.  Indeed, even Aunty’s purple hibiscuses, which inspire the title for the book, are actually described as ‘a deep shade of purple that was almost blue’, and which come to symbolise the struggle for freedom that each member of the family must embrace.  When Kambili suffers an horrific attack at the hands of her father, she copes with the pain by thinking ‘about the doors in Nusukka and their peeling blue paint’.   
Colour is everywhere in Nsukka.  As she introduces Kambili to the healing power of her garden, Aunty Ifeoma says, ‘ Look at that, green and pink and yellow on the leaves. Like God playing with paint brushes’  I think the same can be said of  Adichie.  (It is interesting to note that when red and blue are mixed together, they produce the colour purple, which is also an important colour in the text.)
But at Kambili’s home in Enugu, the property is surrounded by barbed wire, the walls and marble floors are off-white, the curtains are beige, the tables are made of cold, hard glass, the sofas are of cream leather.  The home is devoid of warmth and colour, as much as it is of love, except for momentary blasts of red which are as shocking as the violent outburst that accompany them.  

Yet, in reality, this story is not the sole preserve of Nigeria; it could be any place or any where. The problems facing this group of characters, are universal: a family learning to deal with a terrible secret, hoping to heal itself; people struggling to protect one another, trying to make ends meet; or simply just growing up; all these things are the stuff of everyday life that we can all relate to.   
The section of the book based in the University town of Nsukka, feels just like a typical home to me, so it is no wonder that Kambili and her brother Jaja begin to blossom while they visit there.  It is their spiritual home, where they learn what it is to be loved. Nsukka is a healing, nurturing place for them, as they reconnect with traditional African culture, learn about their grandfather’s customs, hear his stories and learn to cook!  So much of this novel centres around food; the preparation of it, the sharing of it and the eating of it.  (I wonder what jollof rice actually tastes like!) Even the act of tea-drinking plays a significant role in the plot and as such you can see that the novel is told from a distinctly female point of view.  Although there is often little food on the table and much talk of shortages and corruption, the tone of the book, in general, would suggest that Nigeria has much to offer; where happiness is lying on a damp veranda after rains or sipping lemonade with friends on a top floor flat while you try to catch a breeze; where friendship and laughter is a-plenty.

This is a book to recommend to friends and anyone who is ready to take an unforgettable trip to Nigeria.

4 comments:

Kinga Bee said...

What a beautiful review!

my book affair said...

Thanks Kinga Bee. I loved the book, so it was easy to review. Nice to know someone out there is reading my blog. :)

Republic Of Scouse said...

Fantastic review! Loved the description of the colour, brilliant insight. Actually made me want to re-read the book!

My Book Affair said...

Thanks for stopping by and the positive comment Republic of Scouse! The book really got under my skin once I began to appreciate how colour was being used by the author. I love the name of your blog by the way. 'Has a nice ring to it
:-)