Let me start with an admission: I have three books by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on a shelf in my house. Not bought yesterday nor last week nor last month. These books have been companions for a much longer time, but all the time I picked other books from the shelf. I followed her in the press, but now I have collected courage to pick her oldest book from my shelf.
The title may make you think that the book is about gardening, the life and times of the purple hibiscus. And in a way it is true. We meet two gardens: one in the Nigerian town Enugu, the other in the university town Nsukka. Two gardens with different flowers and plants. Two gardens with different horticultural cultures, but closely related. Their roots have the same beginnings and are still closely related.
Let us have a closer look at the garden in Enugu. We enter the garden of a rich Roman Catholic family: father Eugene, mother Beatrice, son Jaja, daughter Kambili. The book is written from the perspective of Kambili. Eugene is a very rich and influentual man, who runs several companies and an important newspaper. He is a strict disciplinarian and his wife and children experience this attitude, often in painful ways. He prefers the old ways in the church, prefers to speak English English above his Igbo. He is a man of importance, people come to him (both at Enugu and his ancestral village) for advise, for money, to share in his position. The local white priest often comes to meet the family. Eugene wants to keep a distance from his ageing father who is a heathen. Eugene does not want to be near heathens and heathen ways. The demarcation line is also compulsory for his wife and children as well, so Jaja and Kambili hardly know their grandfather.
The other garden we find in Nsukka, where Ifeoma, sister to Eugene, is the gardener. She lectures at the local university and she lives with her children at the campus, in not so affluent ways. Her husband has passed away. Life at her place is easy going, but not chaotic, laughter blossoms and openness is encouraged. Once a while Jaja and Kamibili get permisson to stay with their aunt. They meet other people and the young and enthousiastic father Amadi, who is the local priest. They even have abundant opportunities to meet their grandfather (to the dislike of Eugene). In Ifeoma’s small garden plants grow in colourful ways, one of them is the purple hibiscus.
In their journeys Jaja and Kambili are moving from one garden to another, to a place that blossoms, a place where new things are possible. For Jaja life with his aunt is a journey of discoveries. One day he takes some small branches from the purple hibiscus from Nsukka to the garden in Enugu, he plants them, takes care of them and new life of freedom emanates in this garden. A new colour and a new perspective have been added. Who notices it? Eugene does not notice and he continues with his ways. His garden has to stay in perfect order.
The new colour in the Enugu garden makes a difference, the system changes, notwithstanding the attitude of father Eugene. It has a devastating efffect on his nuclear family. How long will his wife and children cope with this husband and father? People around Eugene see in him the man who supports noble causes, who supports people in need, who is a pillar of the local church, who runs a newspaper with a courageous voice in the new days of military power. Eugene the man with multiple faces. At what face does his wife look? At what face do his children look? There are multiple perspectives and that makes life difficult at times, many times.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made her novel debut with her Purple Hibiscus, a stunning debut about changing situations, changing lives in the world where she came from herself. Which garden will blossom in the long run? Or do both gardens have their own right in a country that still searches for its face, both internal and external. The faces come from the same root, bone of my bone, flesh from my flesh, but what creature will develop?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Purple Hibiscus – 2003