While Purple Hibiscus is narrated in first person by fifteen year old Kambili, its real main protagonist is her father Eugene, a devout, even fanatical Christian who rules his family with a strictness that more often than not crosses the border into sheer brutality. He rules his family with an iron fist, not only violently disciplining his son and daughter, but also venting his bad moods on his wife, abusing her to a degree that results in several miscarriages. Even without going into more details (and the novel gives us a lot of them), it should become obvious that he is not a likeable person by anyone’s standards. It would be easy to write a novel painting him as an unambiguous villain, maybe showing how his family eventually overcomes or escapes his tyranny; but Chimamande Ngozi Adichie consistently resists that temptation and does something rather more interesting in her debut novel.
While a brutal tyrant towards his family, Eugene is also a well-respected member of the community and the novel leaves no doubt that this is not just a façade but that the respect people outside his family have for him is entirely justified. Even as the novel maintains Kambili’s point of view throughout, Achidie deftly weaves in events playing out at the teenage girl’s perception horizon that evoke the greater picture of Nigerian society and politics. And in that context, Kambilie’s father appears as a truly impressive person – he runs the only newspaper in the country that is in open opposition to the current regime, bravely defends freedom of speech against oppression, and is several times shown to truly care about his employees and people in his community. The novel does not mitigate this ambivalence at all, Eugene is both a man who takes a courageous stand against tyranny and helps those in need and a man who is a is a narrow-minded fanatic and who is brutally cruel towards his family, at one point almost killing Kambili.
In fact, both sharpy contrasting sides of Eugene’s personality appear to stem from the same source, namely his Christianity which lies at the root of both his relentless fanaticism as well as his charity and willingness to stand in for his beliefs. But his Christian beliefs do not really explain Eugene, as is shown by the introduction later in the novel of Father Amadi, a Catholic priest that Kambili falls in love with and who is not as imposing a public figure as Eugene but at the same time is utterly humane and caring. Viewed like this, if Christianity is not the culprit, the novel might appear like a critique of Western civilization in general and its pernicious influence on African culture, but such an interpretation would have difficulties explaining Kambili’s aunt and Eugene’s sister Ifeoma. She is in most respects her brother’s complete opposite, being open-minded and liberal where he is fanatic and conservative. But in that she is just as much influenced by Western culture as he is, she even emigrates to the United States when she loses her job at university; she also is Catholic, and the novel leaves no doubt that her tolerance stems from European influences. The only character appearing in Purple Hibiscus who can be said to stand in an purely African tradition is Papa-Nnukwu, Eugene’s and Ifeoma’s father, and it is hardly coincidental that he dies in the course of the novel.
Adichie does not always manage to strike the perfect balance between having her characters work on an discursive/allegorical level and describing them as believable persons, Ifeoma and Father Amadi in particular appear rather too good to be true and often seem necessary plot functions rather than full rounded characters. Overall though, this is an intelligent and very well written debut novel that makes me curious to read more by the author.