This novel from a Nigerian/American author is classified as young adult fiction in my library, probably because the narrator is fifteen years old, but I think it will resonate with adults of all ages, and with readers around the world because the themes–abusive relationships, religious legalism, freedom, and the source of joy–are all universal themes.
Fifteen year old Kambili and her older brother Jaja live with their mother and father in a wealthy or at least upper middle class Catholic home in Enugu, Nigeria. Their father’s strict, legalistic Catholicism pervades the family’s life, from twenty minute prayers before meals to reciting the rosary on car trips to fasting before mass every Sunday. Not only is the family required to be strictly Catholic by Kambili’s papa but they are also held to a stringent schedule made up of course by the father. Kambili has conflicting feelings about Papa: she is pleased, even thrilled, when he approves of her words or actions, but of course when harsh punishment comes her way, Kambili is crushed.
Then, the catalyst for change enters the life of this silent, repressed family: Kambili’s Aunty Ifeoma invites the children to visit her home in Nsukka. Aunty Ifeoma is a widow, a teacher, much poorer than her brother, but the joy in Aunty’s home is overflowing and overwhelming for her love-starved niece and nephew. Kambili and Jaja learn another way of life, without rigid schedules and authoritarian rule-keeping, and most of all without fear. Kambili, who comes across as much younger than fifteen throughout most of the story probably because of her repressed childhood, doesn’t know what to think or do with all the freedom that she is given in Aunty Ifeoma’s home, so she mostly does nothing and remains very, very quiet, even silent. Jaja sees the possibilities of freedom and becomes rebellious. However, it is the children’s meek, long-suffering mother, who has also suffered abuse at the hands of her husband, who takes the most surprising action of all.
The story is terribly sad. The depth of the dysfunction and abuse in the family is revealed slowly, a little at a time, until it becomes overpowering. Papa is not a wholly evil man; he publishes the truth about the government in his newspaper and he is generous to the poor, to family, and to many others. But of course, this generosity and honesty displayed to outside world makes the secret, petty evil that Papa perpetrates inside his home even worse.
I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative arc of this novel by telling what it is generally about. I don’t think so. Ms. Adichie is quite skilled in the way she spins her story, and she enlists our sympathy as readers for all the characters in the novel, even Papa to some extent. One senses that he is caught in a web of legalism himself, and he cannot see a way out. That emotional captivity certainly doesn’t justify the abuse, but it explains to some extent why the children and their mother take so long to escape and why their feelings about Papa are so contradictory and confused.