At the start, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, “Purple Hibiscus”, is a story about absence. From the very beginning, the main narrator describes everyone around her with great detail. From their mannerisms, to their appearance, we get to know this Nigerian family of devout Catholics intimately. Papa, the ill-tempered, religious patriarch obsessed with righteousness; Mama the docile, obedient wife; and Jaja, the rebellious teenage son. Missing, is the man narrator, Kambili, whose name is neither spoken or whose appearance is neither described in the first few chapters. In fact, the first time Kambili talks about herself, she is reading her name, written in her father’s handwriting on a daily schedule of chores and activities he created for her and Jaja. This occurs in the second chapter of the novel, on page 16 of my paperback copy. Adichie subtly demonstrates how abuse erases the existence of the abused because the abuser has created the person in their own image. Kambili’s character personified two phrases, “Children are to be seen and not heard” and “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”
Rife with religious overtones, it’s easy to see that Papa is God-like in the imagination of his family. He is able to bestow love, warmth and validation for actions he deems “good” while unleashing acts of violence at random moments for disobedience.
In the novel, two themes are present, redemption and sacrifice. While visiting Aunty Ifeoma and her family in the neighboring town of Nsukka, Kambili and Jaja glimpse a life of freedom. They interact with their cousins, who are free to express their thoughts, while still receiving discipline from their loving mother. They see freedom of spiritual expression, shown by their grandfather, Papa-Nnukwu, a religious African traditionalist. And affection is freely given to them from Father Amandi, an attractive young priest who captivates Kambili’s young teenage imagination.