Book Review: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I reviewed Adichie's second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, last year when I was working at the BAM book/merch kiosk (review HERE). I picked it up on one of those days when I was working a double and had finished the book I was reading and needed something to pass the time. As you can see from my review, I fell in love with the story and her prose, and couldn't wait to read her first novel and her collection of short stories. It took me a year to get back to her, because I am terrible with keeping up to date on my reading lists (if you saw the pile of books waiting to be read next to my bed you would understand), and because I only remembered to buy her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, when I read a review on the release of her third novel, Americanah.

I don't usually start a book with the feeling that it may not be as good as I am hoping it to be, but I did with this one, seeing as I had read her second novel before her first, and how much of a mark it had left on my brain and my heart. I couldn't have been more wrong. Adichie had definitely already found her voice before she started writing Purple Hibiscus, and the prose is just as stunning and sublime as it was in Half of a Yellow Sun. From here on out I shall stop comparing, as although both novels are set in Nigeria, that is where the resemblances end.

Purple Hibiscus is set in post-colonial Nigeria, and revolves around the home of Kambili, the narrator, a quiet, shy and studious 15 year old girl, her older brother Jaja, her father Eugene and her mother Beatrice. With the backdrop of a military coup and military crackdowns and the beginnings of uprisings in the country, we see Kambili's small world grow while she herself comes to terms with her problems at home, and those of the country she lives in. Eugene is wealthy and well-respected in the community, aiming to give his family the best education and life that he can, as well as helping those around him. But he is also a religious zealot and a tyrant at home, with a violent temper and prone to doling out harrowing punishments that make your heart hurt. When Eugene's sister, Ifeoma, persuades him to let her take Kambili and Jaja to stay with her in her town for a week, the children both learn of a world outside of theirs that is bigger and more complicated than they can ever expect, which in turn leads them both to question their own lives and how their father wants them to live them.

At times beautiful, at times horrific, Purple Hibiscus draws you into a world that is so different, but at the same time so similar, and wraps itself around you tightly. Once you have Kambili's voice inside your head you are loathe to let her go, even after you have turned the last page and there are no more words. There are times where I just wanted to shake her and say "speak up, let your voice be heard!", and then would remember myself at her age, and how I often found it impossible to say anything out of fear of being heard. I love Adichie's character development skills - her characters are always so real and so human, never black or white or one-sided, but colourful and full of emotion. This novel is so harrowing and so beautiful it will remain with you well after you have finished it.

After chatting to one of my friends about how I loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's work last night, she sent me an interview she had come across not so long ago in the New York Times. I can't wait to read Americanah (and will do once it is out in paperback - I find hardbacks too heavy to carry around and too annoying to bulky in bed), and this interview just really emphasized why I love this amazingly talented author so much.

Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I love that moment when you read the first sentence of a book and you know that you are immediately hooked. Your eyes widen, your hands clench the book a little tighter and you feel yourself sinking into the words... That's exactly the way I felt when I opened Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love historical fiction and I am particularly interested in recent African history at the moment, so the fact that this book caught my eye is a no-brainer, but there is SO much more to it than that (more about that a bit further down).

Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria in the early and late 60's, before, during and a little after the civil war that ensued after Biafra attempts to secede from the rest of the state of Nigeria. Adichie takes us from the independence from Great Britain in 1960, through the military coups that follow, the rising ethnic clashes and violence (specifically against the Igbo) and resulting secession and declaration of independence of Biafra and it's struggle to survive amidst a civil war that breaks out. We follow the story through the eyes and words of five very strong characters: Ugwu, a houseboy who comes to work for the revolutionary university professor Odenigbo; Odenigbo's lover, the beautiful and well-educated Olanna; Olanna's twin sister Kainene; and Kainene's lover Richard, the Englishman who makes his way to Nigeria to write about Igbo art, and falls in love with both the country and Kainene.The story weaves through these characters lives and portrays an image of life in Nigeria before the war: the passion of the Igbo and the creation of their own state, the interactions with life in the villages, life within the urban middle-class and the remaining British ex-pats who keep themselves away from the Nigerian population, hanging on to what is left of the colony days. Adichie provides us with a beautiful story of love, hatred, war, death and humanity (as well as inhumanity).

There is no need to be interested in African history to enjoy this novel, although if you are it is definitely a must-read. Adichie's prose is pretty much sublime in my opinion - she builds such a passionate story line, and develops her characters so intensely well that you are standing there with them all the way, hurting when they hurt, laughing when they laugh, falling in love when they fall in love. My favourite character (after much deliberation) is Ugwu, the young boy who becomes an indispensable part of the family that hires him. I also love Olanna's fierce independence that is coupled with her fear of losing everything she loves... Each character is completely human, imperfect and real, I feel like there is a part of everyone in all of them. There are many difficult parts, specifically the descriptions of massacres, rape, death and starvation, but all are important in understanding the complexity of the situation and the passion of the people to be free of outside, controlling power.

I cried a lot reading this book, and it probably wasn't a good idea to finish it on my subway ride back home last night, with tears running down my face; and many a time I felt like I was being punched in the stomach, but all the same, I couldn't stop reading. I could literally see and smell the country through the words, and this is something that I admire so much in a writer - the ability to really create a world that I have never seen before right before my eyes. Adichie is only a year older than me, and I feel like she has created a beauty of a novel, set in very disturbing times. I can't wait to read her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and her collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck. So very inspiring.

More information:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's website