This was pretty terrific. Kambili is the daughter of Eugene, a Great Man: he’s a pillar of the community, and not just of the towns they shuttle between in a migration familiar to anyone who’s ever grown up middle class or better in a third-world country. He’s a big deal in Nigeria, a wealthy, self-made man whose fortune comes from manufacturing but who also owns a newspaper that fights for democracy and the rule of law: a tenuous position in a country whose fairly elected government has recently been overthrown by the military. He’s compassionate and generous to his employees and to the needy, but he’s also estranged from his impoverished father, an adherent to the traditional Igbo religion that Eugene spurned in his fanatical embrace of Catholicism. The fact that he’s also a complete monster to his family makes Purple Hibiscus a fascinating examination of the contrasts between one’s public and private selves.
When Eugene’s sister, a widowed university professor in another town who isn’t very well-off herself, invites Kambili and Jaja, Kambili’s older brother, to stay with her and her own three children for a few days, it sets in motion a chain of events that changes Kambili’s life forever. There’s an inappropriate crush, a lot of family turmoil, and a good, hard look at the culture and recent history of Nigeria, all written with compassion and an unflinching honesty that refuses to romanticize a country that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie clearly loves. I ached so much for the quiet, cowed 15 year-old who gradually learns that her home life is not normal and not okay, and whose personality begins to unfold like one of the rare purple hibiscuses of the title when exposed to the sunshine of a normal family’s unconditional love. The only thing I didn’t really like about this book was how rushed the ending felt, and how confusing it was in terms of when the poison was obtained and administered. The first 90% or so of the book was excellent, though. I can see why this was nominated for but ultimately didn’t win the Orange. Would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for good fiction outside of the usual white Western canon.