Amongst the latest batch of second-hand books I was given were Purple Hibiscus and The Summer Book. These are both about growing up, are both moving and beautifully written, yet the childhoods they depict are polar opposites.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist, and Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003, her first book. I have not yet read any others, but I will be looking for them.
The central character is Kambili, a teenager living in a wealthy Nigerian family, but with a father who is a strict Catholic. Her father is a deeply conflicted person, willing to support a free press during a time of violence and repression by a military regime that comes to power in a coup, and resistant to calls to take a second wife to bear more sons, but a tyrant at home. While he loves his wife, Kambili and her brother Jaja, he himself was raised by Catholics who often used violent punishments, and, in his zeal, he inflicts the same on his family. Despite the blurb, the core of the book is the troubled relationship between Kambili and her father.
Here’s the father:
As we drove home [from confession], Papa talked loudly, above the “Ave Maria.” “I am spotless now. We are all spotless.. If God calls us right now, we going straight to Heaven. Straight to Heaven. We will not require the cleansing of Purgatory.” He was smiling, his eyes bright, his hand gently drumming the steering wheel. And he was still smiling when he called Aunty Ifeoma soon after we got back home, before he had his tea.
A brilliant depiction of the zealot’s mindset – a mindset which allows him to love his family at the same time that he inflicts brutal, violent punishments for sins real and imagined. Only hinted at in the early stages of the book – and all the more menacing for it – this sense of foreboding grows during the book and is amplified by the understated yet powerful descriptions of how repressed children act:
“Kambili Achike, please start the pledge,” she said.
Mother Lucy had never chosen me before. I opened my mouth but the words would not come out.
“Kambili Achike?” Mother Lucy and the rest of the school had turned to stare at me.
I cleared my throat, willed the words to come. I knew them, thought them. But they would not come. The sweat was warm and wet under my arms.
Finally, stuttering, I said “I pledge to Nigeria, my country…”
And again, later
“Can we watch CNN?”
I forced a cough out of my throat; I hoped I would not stutter.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Amaka continued, “because right now I think we’re going to visit my dad’s family at Ukpo.”
“We don’t watch a lot of TV,” I said.
A stunning description of a child too terrified to speak.
Amaka in the second passage is Kambili’s cousin, and Amaka’s mother, Aunty Ifeoma, runs a house very different from Kambili’s. Where Kambili’s own household is silent, Ifeoma’s is full of laughter, children who speak back, misbehave, yet are loved.
While there, Kambili meets and develops a crush on the local priest, Father Amadi. Aunty’s family know no fear in their own home, and Kambili starts to emerge from her shell. Aunty Ifeoma manages to talk the father into a return visit, which sees Kambili’s grandfather come to stay. He is a pagan and, to stay in the same house as a pagan is a sin. When Kambili’s father finds out, he inflicts a punishment the depiction of which sent shivers up my spine; when he finds out that Kambili harbours a painting of the grandfather, he beats Kambili to a pulp and, when she is released from hospital, she returns to Aunty Ifeoma’s to recuperate and comes to a kind of reconciliation.
Purple Hibiscus could be a grim read; it isn’t. The tension is largely created by the undercurrents of violence rather than the violence itself, but the joy is wonderful and the ending left a smile on my face. Nigeria itself, which I visited briefly once, comes to life in colour and smell, the people and cultural mores, the mixture of paganism and Christianity (the father is the only abusive Christian in the book), the background of a country in political turmoil, and endemic corruption. It’s on my read-again bookshelf.
So too is The Summer Book. Tove Jansson is largely remembered for the Moomins, the television series of which I vaguely remember from my childhood, but which I never read (or remember reading). This highly autobiographical novel is set during a single summer as Sophia is about six or seven years old: the stage when memories start to join up.
The Summer Book is not a novel in the conventional meaning of the word. As the blurb says, it’s a series of vignettes. They could be in almost any order, and the only characters who persist are Sophia, her father, and her grandmother. The father flits in and out of the book; we never get to meet him. The heart of the book is the relationship between Sophia, her grandmother, and the island they live on during the summer.
This work does not have the same strong first-person narrator as Purple Hibiscus, and there isn’t the faintest whiff of violence. It is, rather, a book of exploration, of a child starting to discover the world. As with Purple Hibiscus, you can feel the earth on your palms and smell the flowers, feel the sea air on your cheeks and hear the rustling of wind in the trees. The sense of discovery, of novelty, as the ancient grandmother and the young Sophia argue, connive and misbehave is almost palpable. Here is one of their antics:
Toward the end of the week, Grandmother and Sophia took the dory out for a little row. When they came to the perch shallows, they decided to go on to Squire Skerry to look for seaweed, and once in the lagoon behind Squire Skerry, it was only a stroke of the oars to Blustergull Rock. In the middle of the gravel was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY – NO TRESPASSING.
“We’ll go ashore,” Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened. “There’s a big difference,” her grandmother explained. “No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway because it’s a slap in the face.”
“Naturally,” Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably. They tied up to the sign.
“What we are now doing,” Grandmother said, “is a demonstration. We are showing our disapproval. Do you understand?”
“A demonstration,” her grandchild repeated, adding, loyally, “This will never make a good harbour.”
“No,” Grandmother said. “And they have the door on the wrong side of the house. They’ll never get it open in a southwester. And look at their water barrels. Ha-ha. Plastic, of course.”
“Ha-ha,” Sophia said. “Plastic, of course.”
And here they are on a summer’s day:
They walked into the pasture and sat down in the grass, which was tall and not a bit dusty. It was full of bluebells and cat’s-foot and buttercups.
“Are there ants in Heaven?” Sophia asked.
“No,” said Grandmother, and laid down carefully on her back. She propped up her hat on her nose and tried to sneak a little sleep. Some kind of farm machinery was running steadily and peacefully in the distance. If you turned it off – which was easy to do – and listened only to the insects, you could hear thousands of millions of them, and they filled the whole world with rising and falling waves of ecstasy and summer. Sophia picked some flowers and held them in them hand until they got warm and unpleasant…
What a great piece of evocative writing!