“Political brutality and domestic violence, religion and witchcraft all merge with subtle force in this memorable novel. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses childhood innocence to write Nigerian history with the eye of a family insider.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
A few pages into this book, I felt a very strong anger towards Eugene, the father of Kambili, the 15 yo narrator.
And that was the emotion that stayed throughout the book from there on!
What a horrible person he is and with such a different image for those outside of his family!
The benefactor of the poor, the god fearing religious man who doles out cash to charities, the only one principled enough and strong enough to publish the truth about the political situation in Nigeria after the military coup, people have many reasons to rever him.
But to his wife, son Jaja and daughter Kambili, he is nothing short of a controlling zealot, who uses his version of God to dictate their every breath, schedules their days to the minute and tortures them for every small infraction, whether intended or accidental.
His wife and children take whatever he dishes out, fearing punishment and hiding the truth. He doesn’t even let them interact with his own father and sister as they do not conform to his religious views.
Kambili comes across, in my opinion,as possibly affected by some version of Stockholm syndrome, the way she looks for approval from her father, always wishing she were the one who had said something to please him or make him smile, the result of years of fear and conditioning. Jaja, on the other hand seems more tightly coiled like a spring, only obeying because he has to. We only get to know him from Kambili’s POV but it definitely seems like he doesn’t have any fond thoughts or love for his father like she does.
Only on the rare occasion of a visit to their aunt Ifeoma’s house without the spectre of their father watching them every minute, Kambili and Jaja get to experience true freedom. They can sing during prayers, eat and drink what they want, laugh loudly and express their opinion on everything under the sun. Even here, Kambili finds it astounding that Jaja is able to shake off their father’s instructions so much more easily while she struggles with the guilt and fear.
Ifeoma comes across as a rare breed of person, like the purple hibiscus she grows. She has the kind of relationship with her children that all parents probably dream of. There is friendship and camaraderie but also respect and obedience when they are needed. Her kids thrive under her support though they struggle materially. Their happiness comes from sharing the struggle of their life. And Jaja and Kambili experience this like rain after years of drought.
Kambili’s innocence is so beautifully portrayed. She does know that there is something very wrong with how things are done in her house but the thought of change, even positive, scares her because submission is so deeply ingrained.
As the taste of independence and freedom starts to have consequences, the story moves towards an end that I certainly did not see coming.
Set in the backdrop of Nigeria’s uncertain climate of political turmoil, strikes and indiscriminate jailing and deaths for dissenters of any kind, the story sets off the helplessness of Kambili and Jaja against the struggle of Ifeoma very well.
Love for the country of one’s birth is always present and doesn’t depend on practical considerations. But life demands practicality and that’s something Ifeoma has to face too.
Like Half of a yellow sun which actually came after this one, but was the first book of Adichie that I read and loved, this one too is a beautifully and sensitively written portrayal of what it means to be free and what it takes for each person to achieve this.
Added 30th August 2020