By Noel Ihebuzor
Purple hibiscus is a tragic tale of lives and family destroyed by the effects of extreme religiosity, a religiosity that strays quite frequently into the irrational and the psychotic. It is also a tale on the dangers of patriarchy, of domestic violence (spousal and GBV) and what could happen when the battered acquiesce for too long in their systematic humiliation. I also see it as a critique of crude and arrogant Catholicism of the type practised in some parishes in Nigeria. The author of the novel, Chimamanda Adichie has certainly amplified that criticism in her recent address to the council of Nigeria’s, and thereby called out the church and its leaders on a public platform.
But let us go back to the story and see what it tells us – simply this – a fanatical father infected with extremes of religious belief engages in behaviors which systematically estrange from his family, his own father and his sister. In the end, he is poisoned by his wife who sees murder as the only route to end his reign of terror and her suffering.
Let us look at the characters – Papa, a Catholic and publisher of a newspaper, mama, his subdued wife who he humiliates at will, their two children, Kambili and Jaja, whom Papa terrorises and who live in total fear of his fits of temper and excesses, Aunty Ifeoma, Papa’s sister, a lecturer and a beacon of liberalism and radicalism, her two children and finally Papa Nnukwu, Papa’s dad and the children’s grandfather. Papa Nnukwu practices traditional religion and this reality creates a permanent tension between him and his son. The tension is such as that it stands permanently in the way of any demonstration of any bond of filial loyalty from our super Christian pater familias to his father.
Interwoven in this sad tale and in the lives of the characters are snippets of the social ills of Nigeria, including that of corruption, poor governance, abuse of office, wrong and aggressive policing, the corrupting and corrosive effects of a poorly examined religious life and what could happen when a young girl either falls in love with or fantasizes over her priest. The tension is intense and eventually leads to the tragic ending of the novel. The title of the novel ” Purple Hibiscus” is thus at variance with its content.
In the end papa dies from the effects of sustained poisoning by his wife but Jaja takes the rap for his mum. A family is destroyed because of the misguided religiosity of a domineering and aggressive father.
This is a troubling and troubled novel told with sensitivity and tact. One sees in it also the early signs of the author’s feminism, a feminism that has since blossomed as can seen in her positions and speeches on several social media platforms. But some questions persist. One of these is this – is papa a rounded character or a flat character? Does his characterization lean towards a single story approach? Remember that Adichie comes against single stories in one of her now famous lectures? What does the reader think?