When Freedom Flowers

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Review of 'Purple Hibiscus', Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fourth Estate £12.99

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, describes a Nigerian family living in a country torn between contradictions. Although a military coup unsettles the population - streets erupt with riots as soldiers hunt down dissenters - the story's main protagonist, Kambili, lives a protected life in Enugu.

Fifteen year old Kambili, her brother, Jaja, and their mother enjoy luxurious comfort inside a large house. High walls topped with electric wire shut out any disruptions. Materialistic abundance is provided by the father of the family, Eugene. He owns several factories and a democratic newspaper, and is a devout Catholic.

Eugene is driven by religion and freedom. He refuses to be silenced by the threat of military repercussions and prints the truth as violence escalates. Amnesty International even gives him a human rights award for his efforts.

Being such a good citizen, it is surprising to discover the tyrant inside Eugene. He rules his family with an iron fist, forbidding them to speak Ibo in public as he proclaims English is the language of civilised people, punishing them severely for ungodly sins - such as not coming first in class - and forcing the children to follow meticulously planned schedules. Sleeping, eating and praying are measured in minutes alongside study and family time. The intensity grows when family life unfolds, laying bare the sickening behaviour of the fundamentalist father.

Eugene's rules and the house compound imprison the family - the youngsters are only allowed sparse contact with their grandfather, a non-Catholic. Abuse and mental strain flow through the story, but Eugene's crazed influence is balanced against the sincere love his family feel for him. Adichie's writing is compelling, confident and beautiful although her story narrates quietly - perfectly describing the shy and introverted Kambili.

Low key language explains grim domestic oppression, but blooming words break with a claustrophobic world. Intricate descriptions of Nigerian food, flowers, plants and people make the book an explosion of colours, scents, culture and feelings.

As the novel advances alongside a changing Nigeria, the family structure begins to crack. The threatening outside world seeps inside the thick compound walls. Eugene's newspaper is forced to go underground. Even the fierce December wind that cloaks the world in red Sahara sand is menacing, and the family take refuge in their winter house in Nsukka where Eugene's sister, Ifeoma, and her three children live.

Ifeoma's liberating, strong character enters the novel with decisive steps, bright lipstick and roaring laughter - surprising Kambili and Jaja with charm, warmth and openness. Outspoken and independent, Ifeoma fights against poverty and increasing instability at the university campus where she lectures.

Kambili and Jaja go to stay in Aunty Ifeoma's house and experience Nigerian everyday life for the first time. In the small flat several people sleep in the same room, everyone helps with the washing up, the floors are made of cement instead of marble and praying is spiced up with singing.

Slowly Kambili and Jaja open their eyes to another reality, where anyone is allowed to discuss at the dinner table and express their thoughts. Amid poverty and sparse means, music, make-up and football set their minds free.

Adichie's unrestrained novel is a spellbinding depiction of contrasts between rich and poor, old and new, oppression and freedom. The 25 year old Nigerian author uses a mature and convincing language, delightfully exploring Kambili's world against an unsettled Nigerian society - vibrant but dangerous. As with Ifeoma's rare purple hibiscuses growing in her unruly garden, oozing defiance and beauty, the novel is captivating and should be read by those who want to see, smell and taste a piece of Nigeria.


This review was written following discussion of the book at the Socialist Review book club