Monday, July 16, 2012

#BookReview: Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I come late to her fan club, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's work is truly worthy of all the accolades it receives.  In Purple Hibiscus, she skillfully combines a coming of age story with a military coup and domestic abuse.  Each of these topics could have been difficult to handle, but Adichie manages to write about each of them in a way that doesn't overwhelm the reader.

Fifteen year old Kambili and her older brother, Jaja, live a good life in Enugu, Nigeria.  Their father, Eugene, is a big man, meaning wealthy and well-connected, so they enjoy privileges that their classmates and friends do not.  But because their father is a big man, no one suspects that he rules his family with an iron fist in the name of religion.  So strict in his faith is Eugene, that has renounced his own father, who has not converted to Catholicism, and limits the children's time with him to 15 minutes during the Christmas holiday.

It's not until Kambili and Jaja get to visit their Aunt Ifeoma and cousins that they learn that everyone does not live by a daily schedule.  Every aspect of their lives, from the time they wake up until they go to bed is dictated by schedules their father has created for them. In Aunt Ifeoma's house, children are encouraged to have a voice and actually use it.  At home, speaking out of turn or acting independently without guidance from their father is a cause for immediate disciplinary action.  In Aunt Ifeoma's home, there is laughter and open emotion, things that have been stifled in Kambili and Jaja's home.

At one point, Eugene boasts that his Kambili and Jaja are “not like those loud children people are raising these days, with no home training and no fear of God;” to which Ade Coker replies: “Imagine what the standard would be if we were all quiet.”  This conversation really hit on so many things for me. The children and their mother's silence has enabled Eugene to keep them living in constant fear of his punishment, should one of them step out of line.  The voices of the students and faculty at the university where Aunty Ifeoma teaches have been raised, resulting in a military coup and the persecution of those that have spoken up.

Forced to leave Nigeria as a result of the coup, Aunty Ifeoma moves to the United States to teach.  Though her daughter, Amaka, always saw the U.S. as the promised land, she soon begins to believe that though times were sometimes hard in Nigeria, there was a freer sense of self and others there than in her new home.

 “There has never been a power outage and hot water runs from a tap, but we don’t laugh anymore . . . because we no longer have the time to laugh, because we don’t even see one another.”

By the end of this book, I was drained.  While I was hoping for a happy ending, instead I got a,, "okay, this is life, make the best of it" ending.  And I'm okay with that.  I just wanted better for characters that I became deeply invested in during the course of my listening.

I do have to point out that I didn't care for the narrator's voice, so I was tempted to stop listening and read the book instead.  The problem I had with it is the story is told from the point of view of Kambili, a fifteen year old Igbo girl from Nigeria.  The narrator was significantly older and sounded nothing like I would imagine Kambili to sound.  I was so thrown by her voice that I actually looked her up.  I understand that she's narrated several of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, but since I've never listened to them, I wasn't familiar with her voice.  Much like I like my female characters voiced by women and not men, I like my characters to sound more like the actual character than a distinctly older person.

Listening time: 11 hours
Published: October 2003

Theme: Sorrow, Tears & Blood by Fela Kuti   

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