Stunning debut is haunting tale of abuse and hope

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By turns luminous and horrific, this debut ensnares the reader from the first page and lingers in the memory long after its tragic end.

First-person narrator Kambili Achike is a 15-year-old Nigerian girl growing up in sheltered privilege in a country ravaged by political strife and personal struggle. She and her brother, Jaja, and their quiet mother live this life of luxury because Kambili’s father is a wealthy man who owns factories, publishes a politically outspoken newspaper and outwardly leads the moral, humble life of a faithful Catholic.

Yet Kambili, Jaja and their mother see a side to their provider no-one else does: he is also a religious fanatic who regularly and viciously beats his family for the mildest infractions of his interpretation of an exemplary Christian life.

But when they are unexpectedly allowed to visit their liberated and loving Aunty Ifeoma, a widowed university professor raising three children, family secrets and tensions bubble dangerously to the surface, setting in motion a chain of events that allow Kambili to slowly blossom as she begins to question the authority of the precepts and adults she once held sacred.

Greta: If somebody had told me the content, I’d have said no thanks, but I found it very compelling and not entirely negative. It was so well written, I really believed it was somebody in that situation telling you about it. My only criticism was the end, it seemed rushed.

Pam: Yes, mind you, with a case like that, with her son in prison, it may have felt like that.

Pauline: I think endings are often flawed with first novels.

Val: I remember having a friend who described her father as being street angel and house devil – it reminded me very much of this situation.

Pam: When she goes to stay with the aunt and there is no water in the toilet – suddenly she’s moved from an ostensibly privileged life, to material poverty, but emotional warmth and riches.

Greta: The family of the aunt was so warm, and loving, I found the book so physically touching, it was beautifully drawn.

Pauline: When I started it I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but I loved it and handed it to my husband, and then to my daughter. The Nigerian family unit resonated for me – compound living. I was interested in the dual names – Christian and African.

Pam: The Christian element quite shocked me, that it is still being enforced. It was interesting when the boy begins to rebel, he realises that there is an alternative, he doesn’t have to conform to his father’s way.

Maureen: He was also very protective of his sister and mother, it was the fanaticism of his father and his disciplines that causes him to question Christianity.

Sandra: The fanaticism is linked to his Christianity?

Val: Yes, very much.

Sandra: This is not a new concept, but these days we tend to forget that it has also long been a part of some aspects of Christianity, we are more used to it being linked to Islam.

Pam: Any form of fundamentalism is dangerous.

Greta: The grandfather hadn’t converted to Christianity so the father cut him off and allowed the children 15 minutes with him per year.

Sanda: So not a laugh a minute...

Pam: Well no, but it was so touching, and readable, there are lots of wonderful moments.

Greta: When the little girl didn’t come first in class at school, her fear was palpable.

Pam: The change between the cousins was interesting, where one resents the other for her perceived wealth, but comes to understand the real situation and her attitude changes completely.

Maureen: I wasn’t sure about the daughter who falls in love with the priest – all she wanted to do was to love him, she didn’t need him to reciprocate.

Greta: Yes, was she being quite truthful?

Pam: The priest seemed too good to be true, but was he ignoring what was really going on?

Greta: I saw the Purple Hibiscus flower as an allegory, Jaja brought it back from his aunt’s house, to his father’s – bringing beauty and hope.

Pam: Yes, it was an allegory for all the goodness the aunt brought to the family.

Greta: I think it is an extraordinary book. It was powerfully set in Nigeria, but the story’s themes are universal. When you look at the words on the page, it’s almost a kind of magic.

Pam: The writer is economic with words, each one carefully chosen, but seemingly effortless.

z The group is reading Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton and Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre for the next meeting on July 20. If you would like to join, please email Rosamund on info@mainstreetbooks.co.uk.