Kambili is the daughter of an eminent businessman in Enugu, Nigeria. Her father is a rich man and a brave man, who keeps supporting the local newspaper even when its criticisms of the recent military coup have become dangerous. He is a pious man, as well-respected in his Catholic church as the priests themselves. He also punishes his children for their perceived sins by breaking their fingers and pouring boiling water over their feet. In a particularly theme-heavy scene, Kambili's mother gives her a little bit of food to help her stomach absorb the pills she needs to help with her menstrual cramps, but because she is supposed to be fasting before mass, her father punishes her.
Kambili and her brother Jaja are offered a vision of a different kind of life when they visit their aunt, their father's sister, Ifeoma, in the university town of Nsukka. Ifeoma is poor but her children have a "freedom to be, to do" that Kambili had not known was possible, and sets her on the path of realizing how restrictive her father's regime has been. In Nsukka, she can see her grandfather, from whom her father has barred her because of his traditional religion. I really liked this observation by her grandfather about the effect of Christianity in Nigeria, which seemed to me the closest the novel ever gets to the style, namechecked on the jacket, of Adichie's fellow Igbo writer Chinua Achebe:
One day I said to them, Where is this god you worship? They said he was like Chukwu, that he was in the sky. I asked then, Who is the person that was killed, the person that hangs on the wood outside the mission? They said he was the son, but that the son and the father are equal. It was then that I knew that the white man was mad. The father and the son are equal? Tufia! Do you not see? That is why Eugene can disregard me, because he thinks we are equal.
Adichie sets the novel at a time of great social and political upheaval in Nigeria. The student riots threaten Ifeoma's job; the fear of retaliation complicates the violent reaction of Kambili's father, who clings to a sense of supernatural order in the midst of great stress. Adichie's depiction of Eugene is particularly sharp, as careful to show his generosity and fine principles, which grow from his piety as his abuse does. But the story is Kambili's, who awakes into not just a realization about her family but about her home in Nigeria as well.
The symbol of the hibiscus--which grows purple only in Ifeoma's garden--is dull and heavy-handed. I found the plain prose of the novel to be artless sometimes, but I could say the same thing about Achebe. But I really enjoyed the complexity of the characters and the escalating tension of the novel, which I didn't expect. Most of all I enjoyed reading a complex portrait of a place that it would be easy to spend most of my life ignoring.