By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Algonquin. 307 pp. $23.95
Americans have no problem eating a Big Mac with their hands, but get them to venture into a West African restaurant, where forming balls of fufu (a thick yam porridge) with the fingers is de rigueur, and they will suddenly go Edwardian on you. "What? No silver?" If the breathtaking debut of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does nothing else (and it does considerably more), it shows that Nigerian gastronomy is as mannered and complex as anything in Europe or America.
But Purple Hibiscus is more than a sub-Saharan version of Isak Dinesen's "Babette's Feast" with cassava lumps replacing baguettes. In this maturation tale about the sheltered Kambili Achike, a 15-year-old Igbo girl of devastating shyness, the frequent meals help assert a vision of middle-class life that impugns postcolonial pessimism and fear about Africa. Adichie's picture of Nigerian domesticity is troubled, to be sure -- the story takes place in a time similar to Gen. Sani Abacha's junta years (1993-1998) -- and it is shaped fundamentally by political upheavals around it. But so were the characters in Dinesen's other famous work, Out of Africa -- that quintessential fantasy of 20th-century Africa where only whites are granted complex interior lives.
While the action mostly takes place after a coup led by an Abacha-like monster named Big Oga, the novel's painstaking tensions more immediately unfold through a "food" problem at home. Kambili and her brother, Jaja, have nervously returned after a Palm Sunday mass during which Jaja defiantly refused to eat communion because the wafer, he claims, gives him bad breath. For their tyrannical father, Eugene, this is a spiritual outrage and a family betrayal. A successful factory owner and politically daring newspaper publisher in the city of Enugu, and a Big Man within his umunna, or extended family, Eugene is generous and hard-working. But he uses Catholicism as a matrix of control over the ignorance and disorder he perceives around him. He finds pliant corroborations in the reactionary parish priest, Father Benedict, a British missionary who re-Latinizes the liturgy and frowns on lively Igbo handclapping in church. Kambili's mother, Beatrice, is a gentle but impotent character who softens but cannot stop Eugene's relentless stamping out of "sin" and imperfection. Part JFK, part Citizen Charles Foster Kane, Eugene tells his daughter, "Because God has given you much, he expects much from you." Indeed, far too much.
Adichie is at her best in giving the traumatized Kambili a playful individual dignity that challenges the humorless power-mongering of her father and her country's dictators. When Eugene's paper criticizes the dictatorship and is forced underground, Kambili reflects: "I knew that publishing underground meant that the newspaper would be published from a secret location. Yet I imagined . . . the staff in an office beneath the ground, a fluorescent lamp flooding the dark damp room, the men bent over their desks, writing the truth." As Adichie later suggests, however, political truth has limitations. In this thinking, she is very much the 21st-century daughter of that other great Igbo novelist, Chinua Achebe.
When Kambili and Jaja get the chance to visit their mouthy Aunt Ifeoma, a university lecturer in the town of Nsukka, they go fearfully, carrying written schedules from their father in their pockets. Aunt Ifeoma takes the ridiculous schedules away, and both young people for the first time taste "a different kind of freedom." They learn to appreciate the animistic spirit world of their Papa-Nnukwu, or grandpa, the humbler but infinitely happier meal-making of Aunt Ifeoma's boisterous family, and, through the denim-wearing priest named Father Amadi, a more humane Catholicism. As the novel's later tragedies hit, Kambili finds herself with an unexpectedly strong new emotional foundation, one based on cooperation, tolerance and female power.
The novel's organization is conventional, the prose muscular. One minor shortcoming is Adichie's tendency to repeat certain imagery or gestures beyond thematic efficacy. The human throat and eyes are mentioned too often, as are Aunt Ifeoma's and her family's "cackles." Adichie, who was born in 1977, has time to refine her prose.
And be warned: The eating never stops in Purple Hibiscus (the titular blooms are themselves edible, of course). Nearly every page holds something tasty: plates of jollof and coconut rice, bottles of cashew juice, roadside vendors hawking bread in hot banana leaves, cow horns full of palm wine. In one sense, the story is a long, spectacular meal, of several seatings over several days. It's enough to drive a hapless American to try cooking that most famous dish of West Africa, egusi. Now will someone pass the fufu, please? *
Bill Broun lectures in the English Department at Yale University, where he is a resident fellow at Timothy Dwight College.