In this, her first novel and the fourth of her works that I have read, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche tells the story of a Nigerian girl raised by a father who is equally a great and generous community leader and a tyrannical and brutal family man. Adiche, even this early in her career, is a master with language. Where some of her other works employ more fluidity, “Purple Hibiscus” is often spare and clipped. The restraint in its language, however, seems very true to the narrator’s voice and steeps the reader in an atmosphere where one must be ever cautious, ever vigilant, ever restrained. Adiche’s careful metaphors are beautiful and simple: “Papa looked at me and then at Mama, searched our faces as if looking for letters beneath our noses, above our foreheads, on our lips, that would spell something he would not like.”
Kambili grows up in a home with such rigorous discipline and such colossal expectations that she lives in constant fear, tongue-tied around classmates, cowering in her father’s shadow. Her sense of failure when she is ranked second in her class is devastating and poignant:
“I wanted to make Papa proud, to do as well as he had done. I needed him to touch the back of my neck and tell me that I was fulfilling God’s purpose. I needed him to hug me close and say that to whom much is given, much is also expected. I needed him to smile at me, in that way that lit up his face, that warmed something inside of me. But I had come second. I was stained by failure.”
Kambili has internalized her father’s demands; she is driven by fear and by an aching need for her father’s approval that smacks of Stockholm syndrome. When she sees first hand her Aunt’s way of parenting, she is struck by how different their methods are.
“It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.”
As she approaches womanhood, Kambili can not help but note the vast difference in her two female role models. Her mother, battered and nearly broken, is so afraid to offend or overstep that her life is but a whispered apology. In contrast, her Aunt lives life out loud, as a woman comfortable with her strength and her voice.
“When [Aunt Ifeoma] barged into the dining room upstairs, I imagined a proud ancient forebear, walking miles to fetch water in homemade clay pots, during babies until they walked and talked, fighting wars with machetes sharpened on sun-warmed stone. She filled a room.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a unique command of language. She speaks of culture and gender with eloquence and ease. Her books provide insight not just into Nigerian life, but into our own inner lives. My admiration of her grows with every work I read, and I look forward to continuing to nurture this literary love affair.