Our yard was wide enough to hold a hundred people dancing atilogu, spacious enough for each dancer to do the usual somersaults and land on the next dancer’s shoulders.
The compound walls, topped by coiled electric wires, were so high I could not see the cars driving by on our street. It was early rainy season, and the frangipani trees planted next to the walls already filled the yard with the sickly-sweet scent of their flowers. A row of purple bougainvillea, cut smooth and straight as a buffet table, separated the gnarled trees from the driveway. Closer to the house, vibrant bushes of hibiscus reached out and touched one another as if they were exchanging their petals. The purple plants had started to push out sleepy buds, but most of the flowers were still on the red ones…
It was mostly Mama’s prayer group members who plucked flowers; a woman tucked one behind her ear once – I saw her clearly from my window.
commentary: Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah was one of my best books of 2014: Purple Hibiscus was written nearly ten years earlier. It’s an unusual book, one that lures you into thinking it resembles others, then turns around and surprises you. It’s a story of a young girl living in Nigeria with her well-off family during a period of political turmoil. Her own family also has its problems, paralleling those on the wider stage. Her father has taken to Western religion, and wants to cut off any of his extended family who don’t follow him. He is also, it becomes apparent, a deeply conflicted man: he is generous, brave and has political integrity. But he is a domestic tyrant and worse, making everyone’s life a misery. It’s a terrifying but deeply nuanced picture, with a depth of characterization which I have rarely encountered before. It makes for difficult reading at times.
Kambili, the young girl, discovers a contrasting way of life when she visits her aunt and cousins. She is shy and finds it difficult to express herself, and there is a sadness in the way she cannot make friends with her cousin Amaka – they seem at first doomed to misunderstand each other.
The book was written in English but is full of Nigerian words, and has many descriptions of the customs, the food, the world around her. I wasn’t quite sure who the book was aimed at – a Western audience, or Nigerians.
The opening line is:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the etagere.- probably the most famous work of Nigerian literature is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and this is a clear reference to it.
Adichie is an astonishingly talented writer: immensely readable and straightforward, but also capable of suggesting much more than is in the words. It’s hard to describe what makes her such a good writer – I look forward to reading more by her while I try to work it out.
The top picture is of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The middle one is the dancing mentioned. The lower one is a purple hibiscus – a plant she says is rare and difficult to grow.