On Saturday I finished my first item of African literature for the year. It was powerful and depressing; if you haven’t read anything by Adichie, read Half of a Yellow Sun first (I liked it better, more epic!). But here’s what I thought of this one.
emotionally difficult bildungsroman against a backdrop of domestic abuse and military dictatorship
This is the story of wealthy Nigerian family with a deeply religious father who gives generously to family, the community, and other charitable causes; a loving mother; and two successful children (Kambili and her brother Jaja) who perform at the top of their classes in school. It also the story of a family wracked by domestic violence, a father with an uncontrollable temper, and two children who obey and perform through profound fear. Same family. Fifteen-year-old Kambili narrates the story as she and her brother go to visit their father’s free-thinking university professor sister, and attitudes begin to change.
The story is emotionally difficult (as it should be), and it never bores (although I occasionally became frustrated with Kamibili’s unrelenting shyness). Adichie – the author – effectively portrays the complex relationships between domestic abusers and their victims, the entwined fear and love and pride and anger. Adichie takes advantage of the father’s adoration of the West to get in a number of clever jabs at Western culture, and she uses the university professor aunt and her children to espouse a number of messages. (The aunt experiences – for example – the capricious nature of the process of applying for an American visa; for a much better characterization of that, however, read Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.)
I can see why this was only shortlisted for the Orange Prize whereas Adichie’s more recent book, Half of a Yellow Sun, actually won the prize. Both books are emotionally effective, but Half feels more epic while it plays out on the backdrop of a major historical event (the Biafran War). Hibiscus is more of a domestic drama, although Adichie seeks to illustrate the challenges of life in Nigeria with a military coup, a significant amount of political intrigue, police oppression, and other dynamics.
One critique I had was with a subplot detailing Kambili’s first love interest, a priest. The future of the relationship was ambiguous enough to create real discomfort (she is fifteen and he is an adult, after all), and the reader experiences enough discomfort from the primary family relationship to satisfy all discomfort quotas for years to come.
I listened to the unabridged audiobook narrated by Lisette Lecat (published by Recorded Books, 10 CDs). Lecat is an excellent reader as always (she also narrated the excellent Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), but I couldn’t help being bothered by the erroneous accent: Lecat is South African, and that accent is very distinct from the Nigerian accent.
Minor critiques aside, I highly recommend this fine example of modern Nigerian literature.
[Note on content: the book contains graphic (not gratuitous) domestic violence.]