Erin W's Reviews > Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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's review
Sep 13, 11

bookshelves: borrowed-read, fiction, 2010, global-reading-challenge
Read in September, 2010

Starting out, this book was giving me a lot of what has kept me away from global literature in the past. Here’s a sample paragraph, narrated by the protagonist Kambili:

Lunch was fufu and onugbu soup. The fufu was smooth and fluffy. Sisi made it well; she pounded the yam energetically, adding drops of water into the mortar, her cheeks contracting with the thump-thump-thump of the pestle. The soup was thick with chunks of boiled beef and dried fish and dark green onugbu leaves. We ate silently. I molded my fufu into small balls with my fingers, dipped it in the soup, making sure to scoop up fish chunks, and then brought it to my mouth. I was certain the soup was good, but I did not taste it, could not taste it. My tongue felt like paper.

Do you feel how aggressively multi-cultural that is? There’s a choice to be made by authors who expect to have a foreign appeal—or whose editors want to inject foreign appeal, which also probably happens a lot. Either they explain nothing: “Lunch was fufu and onugbu soup. Anyway, moving on…” Or they explain way, way, way too much. I find it very awkward. “I molded my fufu into small balls with my fingers, dipped it in the sopu, making sure to scoop up fish chunks, and then brought it to my mouth.” No offense to Ms. Adichie, but that is one of the most awkward sentences I have ever read, ever. And I wanted to know, is there a narrative purpose in here? Other than, ‘this is how African people eat fufu and onugbu soup? Aren’t we all learning?’ I have dropped a lot of multi-cultural lit because they shoehorn in too many descriptions of food and clothes and religious rites. I want to experience the story world, not read an encyclopedia entry about it.

And yet, the book comes back from this awkward beginning. Some way through the book, Kambili and her brother visit family—a free-thinking aunt who is a college professor, and her independently-minded kids. Kambili is bewildered when she witnesses how her aunt and cousins talk to each other, how they converse freely, casually, and without fear, how they remain open-minded about religious and political conflicts going on in the country. They have been allowed to develop relationships with the grandfather they all share—Kambili’s father cut the man out of their lives because he remained loyal to his ancestral religion. When the old man falls ill, Kambili overhears her aunt pray that God watch over the old man and she is blown away. God watch over a heathen? The idea is, to her, unheard of. The God she has known is—like her father—a rigid and unforgiving figure. She gets a counterpoint to this, too, in the friendly, liberal priest she meets through her aunt, and on whom she develops a mildly inappropriate crush.

Kambili’s understanding of the world gets bigger, and suddenly she has choices to make about how the rest of her life is going to go. Her new knowledge sets up tensions that didn’t exist before. That is a classic setup for a coming-of-age novel and it works great. I loved the aunt and cousin characters—I kind of wanted to live with them, too. So what started out kind of stiff and instructive grew into a more character-driven narrative—just as the protagonist is discovering her own character, who she is and who she can be without the interference of oppressive forces like her father. I am so much more receptive to literary styles and narrative choices that I don’t like if they turn out to mean something. The book began with Kambili an observer, one who catalogues and records but doesn’t interpret; Adichie wrote the character a nice, subtle growth arc. Well done.

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