Half of a Yellow Sun was the best book I’d read in a long time, so I was looking forward to reading the author’s other novel. Purple Hibiscus is a good book, but it’s one of those first novels that doesn’t really demonstrate the author’s true abilities.
This book is narrated by Kambili, a 15-year-old girl living in contemporary Nigeria. She comes from a wealthy family, and her father is widely admired for his support of the Catholic church and his fearless publication of a pro-democracy newspaper. Beneath the surface, though, he rigidly controls the lives of his family and brutally punishes them whenever they fall short of his expectations. Kambili and her brother don’t think to resist until they visit their poor but loving relatives and begin to expand their horizons.
Purple Hibiscus does a good job of what it tries to do: detailing the life of its protagonist and the beginnings of change. Adichie writes well and the characters have depth (although they’re not as amazing as the characters in Half of a Yellow Sun). Even the abusive father is a fully-fleshed out character rather than a generic antagonist, and the book does a great job of exploring the family’s complex feelings toward him; Kambili’s proud of her father, she loves him and wants his approval, and we can understand why she feels that way despite everything.
If you like immersion in characters’ lives, this book has it in spades. We don’t have to be told that life in Kambili’s father’s house is suffocating; the book walks us through every step of it. And there is so much detail about the daily lives of her aunt and cousins that I feel as if I’ve been their houseguest myself. To the extent that there’s a lot of information about a culture I’m unfamiliar with, I enjoyed this (if you’re Nigerian, I’m not sure whether you’d like it or not). The downside is that at times, the massive amount of detail about chores and meals and so on seems to get in the way of the plot.... or rather, because Kambili’s development depends on this slow and subtle change in her worldview, we have to read through an awful lot of mundane events to get the full picture. Either way, even while it was good, I have to admit to some impatience with the plot.
In sum, this book isn’t much like Half of a Yellow Sun (and if you haven’t read that book yet, go and read it now!), but it’s a decent first novel that does a good job at what it tries to do. I plan to read more from this author, but I hope her future novels will be more like her second book rather than this one.