Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Purple Hibiscus.

Kambili, the narrative character of this novel is a sixteen year old girl. She and her brother, Jaja, are subjected to a ritual schedule of religious and educational advancement that takes up most of their hours. Their father is a poor boy made good, who expects the utmost of his children in turn. Like an Old Testament God, he intrudes with a jealous solicitude ready to punish any falling short of his own uncritically accepted standards.

His abuses of his wife and children are the riddle to the story of a man of exemplary public virtue. Eugene is a wealthy and influential industrialist, who goes out of his way to sustain the poor and unfortunate. Not only that, he sustains freedom to criticise a lawless regime of corruption and coups. But violent repression stalks the household as it stalks the land.

Eugene dominates the novel thru dominance of the narrative character. Then Aunty Ifeoma manages to get the two children away for a stay with their cousins. Kambili moves on from palatial opulence to the parlous state of the professional classes in a Third World country. Basic services are on the blink, with power cuts and strikes and shortages, the hardly-met costs of emergency needs.

This covers most of the main characters. There is an almost Western-like restriction of ties. One could imagine the relish with which Dickens would have investigated an African extended family but it isnt much in evidence here. Tho, Eugene spares no expense on dependants and, it seems, everyone he meets and many he doesnt. The exception is his father, who wouldnt convert to Christ but his daughter portrays as a devotional man in his country's traditions. If Eugene remembers his impoverishment, Kambili is mainly confined to a car-window-view of life's scramble by the poor. And when the view gets too bad, Mama says "Dont look," even if she already has.

Aunty the academic and her argumentative children are kept firmly in their place as characters, rather than being allowed to subvert the novel into a treatise. There is a manifest hopelessness towards reform. ( That wasnt shared by Dickens. ) Aunty believes the nation will eventually find its feet but she does so after being driven into exile.

Maybe that is why the narrator is mainly interested in day to day Nigerian life. She is, after all, young and has hardly experienced anything of the out-side world. The foods are exotic and the flora, the insects insistent as the sun. Animals are not much in evidence. Ive read elsewhere that there is some scarcity of them in Nigeria.

And Kambili has her first bitter-sweet awakening to love in the company of Father Amadi. The unstable state of the nation could never supplant such an experience in the mind and heart of youth.

My local readers group was horrified by the father's treatment of his family. That took up all their attention. There was little political consciousness. Mind you, I dont think the author was really interested in the politics. The young girl narrator just wanted to experience life, as youth does, despite the invasive state.

I dont know whether an aversion to set study, the narrative character endured, has anything to do with it, but a glossary of Igbo words and phrases is absent. There are plenty of them, in the text. They give emotional emphasis, whose meaning would be a clue to the characterisation.

Barbara Vine ( Ruth Rendell ): A Dark-adapted Eye.

This is a novel of Vera, a murderess, shortly before the abolition of capital punishment in the UK. She is no Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged. There was an out-cry that she should have been spared because of extenuating circumstances. She was persecuted.

In the novel, Vera herself comes over as a petty persecutor. So, the author isnt looking for a sympathy vote for her from the readers. Yet, one feels it is not Vera that the author is condemning but the era that she comes from.

Faith, the first person narrator came to stay as a girl with Vera and Eden. She is preyed-on by thoughtless adherance to convention and constant carping criticism. This may be symbolised by the ticking clock in Faith's bed-room. The ticking is like Vera's relentless ticking off. She cannot stop it, so she puts it out on the window ledge.

This is a nice counter-point to the fact that Faith has been removed from their living room and hypocriticly sent to bed for her own good, tho it is really because they are bored with her. When Vera noticed the evicted clock, she couldnt let the incident go any more than any persecutor of heresy. Or, as Kingsley Amis would say, he eventually found the reason, he had been looking for, to dislike him.

This novel is seasoned with an unholy relish for detailing the small-mindedness of her villain. The author seems to have a load of it to work off. But it makes for good social criticism, this counter-attack on personal criticism. At one point, the author explains that Vera got inordinately worked-up about little things, that didnt matter, because they were important to her.

Like the indictment of an age, even the home-made cooking with its dietary deficiencies is put into the enemy camp. I have to say that "Toast," the story of a boy's hunger, by Nigel Slater impressed in far greater detail with the sickliness of commercial recipes from those times.

Faith's brief family history is forgettable because not linked to personal introductions. Otherwise, there's a strong behavioral perception of people. That's like Dickens and one wonders, if like him, the author suffered from a wronged childhood, to make perceptions almost too sharp. Faith's father stops reading the morning paper in mid-sentence, because he's reached the end of the first page. Tho it's The Daily Telegraph, he still acts like a school-boy told to stop his share of a class-room reading lesson.

Father's habitual stop resonates with the abrupt halt to Vera's life that morning. This reader was teased by the author how the narrator knew that Vera was going to die at a given time. The impression was given of a murder plot, she had something to do with, instead of her being a passive witness. And it makes one reflect how much an individual does in fact contribute to another's fate, however unwittingly. So much in life is governed by chance, which relations are bound to throw up.

Nothing is said at the break-fast table. Vera becomes a non-person to her family. So does her victim, whose name suffers from guilt by association. The father wanders to work by a long route thru the leafy suburbs. The patriarch is a school-boy, still.
The author does not just expose a period of snobs and snoopers but remembers her own characteristic part. The self-recognition may only be to say good-bye to a by-gone age.

Richard Lung.
March 2006.

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