Top critical review
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Beautiful Story Line Poor Characterisation
on 20 August 2008
My sister recommended Purple Hibiscus to me sometime last year. However, I was reluctant to read the book because I was not sure that it could live up to Half a Yellow Sun, Adichie's other book. In hindsight, I was right.
The novel is narrated by Kambili Achike, the fifteen-year old daughter of a wealthy Nigerian businessman. The book begins with a description of Kambili's family life: Her wealthy father, Eugene Achike, whom she called Papa, had made good in life; he had numerous factories and a newspaper, which took an uncompromising stand on the corruption of the ruling elite. To cap it all, he was a philanthropist par excellence, supporting many causes. Yes, Papa is the picture of the rewards of industry, thrift and hardwork.
Beneath the respectable veneer, however, all is not well. Papa, supporter of all noble causes sacred and secular, was a very violent man. He regularly beat Kambili and her brother, Jaja, at the slightest provocation; failure to say the novenas correctly; eating before Mass; failing to top their high-school class all came in for Papa's lash. Good man that he was, Papa was particularly obsessed with the Catholic religion. Yes, Papa was a good old religious fundamentalist. The result: Kambili's home, despite all the appurtenances of wealth, was a miserable place where Kambili and her brother lived in mortal fear of Papa.
Enter Papa's sister, Kambili's Aunt, Ifeoma. Kambili and Jaja spend two weeks at Aunt Ifeoma's house in Nsukka. The experience changes their lives. Aunt Ifeoma, though not as rich as Papa, is lively, smart and tolerant. In short, Aunt Ifeoma is al that Papa is not and then some. After their stay at Nsukka, life cannot be the same again. Kambili meets a dashing Man of the Cloth who takes too keen an interest in the teenager; Jaja and Kambili discover a loving world where children think for themselves and are free to speak their minds.
The drama between Papa and his family unfolds against a backdrop of recent Nigerian politics. A corrupt military junta has just seized power in a military coup. The junta will do all in its power to squelch dissent and freedom of the press. Papa's incorruptible paper, The Standard, is pressured to recognise the junta. Papa refuses with the result that the paper's editor is assassinated by the military dictators. So far so good.
The story suggests, however, that Ms Adichie liberally plagiarised recent Nigerian history for some of her characters. As a Nigerian, I could see that, Ade Coker, the idealist editor, who is killed by a letter bomb in the novel was actually Dele Giwa; the pro-democracy activist killed using acid was Ken Saro-Wiwa; and the military dictator rumoured to have died between the legs of a prostitute, General Sani Abachi. That Ms Adichie barely disguises these characters is understandable since the novel is primarily about relationships within the Achike family and not about the socio-political situation in the country.
To my mind, the novel falls apart due to its superficial - often flat - characterisation. Except for Papa, whose character was fleshed out, all the other characters were two-dimensional. Mama is always amenable and subservient; Kambili always the innocent on-looker; and Aunt Ifeoma always defiant and head-strong.
While most of the characters lack depth, others are simply too good to be true. Amaka and Obiora, Kambili's teenage cousins, seem too clever by half. When a friend of Aunt Ifeoma's complains, "The military tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist", 15-year old Obiora responds, "That's just unrealistic pep-rally nonsense". How many 15-year olds can respond to such matters with that kind of depth?
Purple Hibiscus succeeds in exposing the hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion. Eugene Achike is the product of the clash - rather the grafting - of Christianity onto an African traditionalist substrate. Papa seemed to spent his whole life trying to resolve that conflict. More importantly, it is the story of a young girl trying to come to terms with her sometimes benign but overly domineering father.
Overall, Purple Hibiscus is a good read. Ms Adichie is a gifted writer. Her style is simple yet punchy; it reminds me Chinua Achebe's (Adichie almost tries too hard to be write like the great man). However, for all its strengths and acclaim, the novel's insipid, vapid characterisation did not escape me. The novel never seemed to 'take off' for me. Therefore, to my mind, Purple Hibiscus deserves only 3 stars. Her other novel, Half a Yellow Sun, which won the Orange Prize, is a more mature, more subtle piece. I would recommend it highly to anyone who wants a more nuanced portrayal of Nigerian life.