Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1249
Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age novel set in postcolonial Nigeria. The narrator, Kambili Achike, is fifteen. She lives with her older brother, Jaja, and their parents, Eugene and Beatrice (referred to as “Papa” and “Mama”), in a grand home in the city of Enugu.
Life in the family home is very privileged but highly restricted—Kambili and Jaja are held to extremely high academic and behavioral standards by their father, whose strict adherence to religious doctrine governs every part of the family’s life. If they fail to meet his expectations, he is psychologically and physically abusive toward them. In public, the family’s difficult dynamic is hidden from view—Papa is a very prominent member of the city’s Catholic church, a respected businessman, and a newspaper publisher. When the area experiences a military coup, he’s lauded by the community as a brave bastion of free, honest press in a time of political turmoil.
The family’s narrative begins with tension as they return home from church one Palm Sunday. Jaja has just refused to take communion during the service, and when he is confronted about this, Jaja informs Papa that he is no longer interested in taking it at all. Papa is furious with Jaja, and he throws a leatherbound church missal at a shelf of fragile figurines to punctuate his fury. The shelf breaks, and everything on it is destroyed. Jaja leaves the table, and Kambili is sick with worry over what his impending punishment will be.
As she stares out the window of her bedroom, noticing the family’s remarkable purple hibiscus flowers, Kambili recalls the circumstances of their growth. The story flashes back to the events leading up to Palm Sunday: Kambili is studying in her room, per the strict daily schedule of activities her father gives her at the beginning of each day. Mama comes in and reveals that Kambili is going to be a big sister soon, despite Mama’s multiple previous miscarriages. When Jaja and Kambili discuss the new baby, Jaja implies grimly that the two of them will need to work together to protect it from Papa.
Later in her pregnancy, Mama starts experiencing unusual nausea. Kambili hears thumping coming from her parents’ bedroom one night, and she knows that her father must be beating her mother. When Papa takes Mama out the front door slung over his shoulder, she fears the worst. Her worries are confirmed when Mama returns home a few days later, saying only, “There was an accident. The baby is gone.”
The family travels to their hometown for the Christmas holiday, and Papa gives money freely to everyone they see. They bring food to feed the whole community and receive a constant stream of visits from members of his umunna—his extended family. Aunty Ifeoma, Papa’s sister, visits from Nsukka with her three children, and they invite Kambili and Jaja for a visit. Aunty Ifeoma is Papa’s opposite—a kind, open-minded, and humorous university lecturer. Her children, too, differ greatly from Kambili—they speak up, ask questions, argue, and laugh freely. After initially hesitating, Papa decides to allow the visit.
When Kambili and Jaja arrive in Nsukka, they find themselves bewildered by the new environment. The flat is small and cramped, the family shares rooms, and though they’re also Catholic, they worship with unfamiliar, joyous songs. In contrast to the easy, warm communication of the rest of the family, Kambili and Jaja are incredibly shy. Kambili, especially, struggles to communicate—when her family members speak to her, she often stutters or mumbles and, ultimately, says nothing. Instead, she tells the reader what she wishes she could say. When Jaja notices the purple hibiscuses in the garden out front, Aunty Ifeoma tells him that it’s an experimental plant from her colleague at the university.
(The entire section contains 1249 words.)
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