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The word atmosphere is derived from the Greek atmos (vapor) and sphaira (sphere.) This "vapor sphere" is the pervasive climate of the book, and when it's done well, it's airtight. Setting, detail and diction work together to create a cohesive tone, an authentic tapestry in which no stitch is out of harmony with the others. Adichie has achieved this in her debut novel, "Purple Hibiscus." Set against the backdrop of political unrest in Nigeria, the story is told in the first person by 15-year-old Kambili, who lives at home with her powerful and tyrannical father, her emotionally narcoleptic mother and her inconveniently rebellious brother.
This book has an air of entropy, of rich landscapes and buried secrets. The vernacular is inclusive, assuming the audience knows the family intimately, and we are invited to walk through the rooms of the characters' lives. In the opening lines of the book, we are immediately saturated with Adichie's world:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.
In economical prose, Adichie does not over-sentimentalize or exaggerate the brutal attacks on her characters, which makes them all the more frightening and real. Kambili is like a war correspondent embedded within her own family, anesthetized to the violence and familial masochism (loving hurt, hurting love) that create a constant tightrope the characters must walk. This consistency and reliability of first-hand account helps create the emotional authenticity and airtight atmosphere.
Root and Bloom
Adichie's work grows into the past as well as the future. Tradition, custom and ritual anchor the roots while the symbolic purple hibiscus (rare, individual) reaches for the light. The purple hibiscus becomes a metaphor for freedom and independence. While a flower may seem delicate in constitution, purple is historically associated with royalty and the divine. The purple flower then comes to signify Kambili's urge to bloom, her natural instinct to look for the light.
Masterfully created, Kambili's father is both evil and loving. Both benevolent protector and emotional terrorist. While Kambili desperately wants her father's love, and has a natural attachment to her blood roots, she simultaneously wishes to sever her connection to her father, along with the tyrannical rule that comes with him. Kambili's house is falling down. Propriety and submission are valued over free will, and while her controlling father is overlord of all he surveys—revered in the community and church—his family is coming apart at the seams. When Kambili is allowed to spend time with her independent and strong willed Aunty Ifeoma, she is introduced to a world without rigid schedules, religious rules or a supreme Monarch.
As Kafka said, "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us," and so Kambili's glance into another world begins to crack her frozen emotions, her terrorized heart and her rigid submission. Kambili's sagacious instinct to spend time with her Aunt resembles a tender shoot growing up between cement slabs, working its way past enormous obstacles towards whatever light it can find.
Burning Down the House
In the climactic conclusion of the novel, the characters split out of their shells and change in surprising, if not shocking ways. The entropy and rebellion that has been fueling throughout the book ignites in a fatal spark, and the rule of empire burns down.
Adichie creates a masterful work with "Purple Hibiscus," a work that is carefully planted, lovingly tended and brilliantly bloomed. She satisfies her readers with a messy ending, not one that is too tidy or conclusive, where at the end our characters must undoubtedly face a new set of hardships and hurdles, like life.