Kambili is a 15 year old girl, growing up in Nigeria with her older brother, Jaja, and their parents, Eugene and Beatrice. Eugene is a very wealthy, influential man, one of the few who dares to stand up and tell the truth about the local government by means of the newspaper he owns. Theirs is a charmed life, with Eugene donating richly to the poorer neighbors, to the church, and to the many charities he supports. They live in a compound surrounded by high walls, and they have servants to cook and clean and drive for them. They have cable television and luxurious cars, plenty of meat to eat, and the respect of the community. Kambili and her brother are consistently first in their class, and are well regarded by their teachers.
Of course, when you scratch the surface, things are not as wonderful as they seem. The family lives in fear of Eugene, who is known to fly into rages, and dishes out extreme punishments for any infraction against his strict schedules and his unattainable standards. He is a religious fanatic, and fears that his family might become possessed by demons if they do not keep their minds and bodies clean, work hard and worship along with him, and follow his ever directive with no questions asked.
Eugene’s sister, Ifeoma, convinces Eugene to let Kambili and Jaja come and visit her family for a few days, a visit which opens their eyes to the world around them. Ifeoma is a widowed University Professor in a time of turmoil, when the Universities did not have the money to pay the salaries of their staff. She and her children live a very meager existence, constantly trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Ifeoma’s daughter, Amaka, is very jealous of the luxuries that her cousins enjoy, while they marvel at her easy relationship with her mother, and begin to unclench their muscles and thrive in this house, which is full of laughter and genuine respect. Kambili, in the mean time, falls in love with Ifeoma’s friend, a young priest named Father Amadi.
As the two households become closer, Nigeria falls under a military junta, and events begin to spiral out of control.
Purple Hibiscus is beautifully written, with glimpses of fanaticism, the effects of colonialism and missionary dominance, and a culture fiercely subdued but not completely mastered. The narrative was a bit more straightforward than Adichie‘s other wonderful novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, and I would happily recommend either of them. She is obviously a gifted writer, and I look forward to her next book.