« Things started to fall apart at home when, my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère. » Here is the sentence that introduces Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s very first novel, published in 2003.
In this novel, the narrator is a 15-year-old Nigerian teenager. Her name is Kambili. When we are introduced to Kambili, she is intelligent but silent, almost erased. She only seems really close to her big brother Jaja and yet, their relationship is made up of silences and things that they dare not name. Around them evolve their mother, a paragon of docility and their father, a religious fanatic and respectable businessman. In their small community, people dedicate a real cult to his father Eugene, known for his great generosity and his political convictions. How not to feel respect and admiration for such a man? In fact, Kambili is inhabited by the desire to please him. The few words she dares to utter at the table are intended to praise the merits of the drinks produced by her father’s business. When her transcript reveals that she is second in her class, the panic that seizes her is extremely violent. What scares her so much? This is the question that immediately comes to mind.
From the first pages, there is something in the general atmosphere of the novel that disturbs. The shadow of the father seems to hang over everything. Fear is a tangible substance that seems to guide each of the characters’ actions. When one is later confronted with the acts of violence of the father, one has the feeling of having held one’s breath until then. Certain scenes of violence are hardly suggested, such as the miscarriage of Kambili’s mother. Others, on the contrary, are displayed in all their cruelty to the point of being unbearable. At the end of his outbursts, invariably, the tyrant displays a sad face, complaining of having been forced to such extremes. So his victims shoulder the weight of the guilt and the tyrant remains wrapped in his apparent righteousness, certain to accomplish the heavy tasks incumbent on a patriarch.
Tatie Ifeoma’s introduction feels like a breath of fresh air. Ifeoma is the complete opposite of his brother. She is also Catholic but shows great tolerance towards the « pagan » beliefs of their father. She is an intelligent woman, a university professor, raising her three children on her own. At some point in the novel, Kambili and his brother will spend some time at Ifeoma’s. This period is decisive for them because they are then confronted with an environment totally different from what they were used to. There, their opinions are not only tolerated but encouraged. At first, Kambili has trouble adjusting and has to face the hostility of her cousin Amaka. Amaka is as direct and determined as Kambili is shy and discreet. As time goes by and her brother Jaja seems to thrive in this more liberal atmosphere, Kambili feels more and more the pressure and the urge to make her voice heard. But how do you find your voice? How to learn to think for herself when all she has never known was to obey?
In her famous Ted Talk, which inspired the essay We should all be feminists, Adichie briefly sums up The Purple Hibiscus as the story of « a man who, among other things, beats his wife and whose story does not end well ». But this novel is so much more than that. There is the political aspect, given that the events take place during a turbulent period in the political history of Nigeria. The pervasive effects of colonialism are explored through Eugene’s attachment to European beliefs and culture, his rejection of ancestral traditions and the deference with which he treats white religious. Throughout the novel, what comes up constantly is the difficulty of developing one’s individuality in an environment dominated by fear and violence. Especially, when you are a woman, in a patriarchal society, there is a constant effort to silence your voice. When, moreover, strict religious values predominate, one ends up feeling guilty simply of existing, for anything can be a sin. The lack of freedom to open up to the world and explore, especially your own sexuality, limits your horizons and your possibilities. You grow up in a world so small that entering real life is like diving into a void. Finding your voice and becoming the one you want to be takes time and it’s a journey made of victories and setbacks. That’s why I particularly appreciate the subtlety of Kambili’s development. Because, before being able to open out, the flower goes through a whole process of growth. The same is true of people.