by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Kambili and her elder brother Jaja live under the controlling hand of their father, Eugene, who goes so far as to create the teenagers’ schedules, accounting for every hour. Eugene, a staunch Catholic and wealthy businessman, presents a clear picture of sin which the family must observe–even going so far as to refuse to let his “heathen” father on his compound in his home village. His expectations for perfection are ever-present, creating an oppressive atmosphere that is palpable to the reader. It is clear that something very, very bad is going to happen.
Yet, Kambili is proud of her father, who is often mentioned in sermons as a paragon of virtue, and is desperate to please him. She is proud that his newspaper, the Standard, publishes articles critical of the government even though it might put Eugene, his staff, and his family in danger. Though there is a military coup that rocks the country and threatens the paper, the family is mostly shielded from change through their great wealth.
When their Aunty Ifeoma convinces Eugene to allow Kambili and Jaja to visit her and her children in Nsukka, he reluctantly agrees, sending them with revised schedules that allow for two hours a day to spend with their cousins but otherwise look the same. The teenagers realize that the visit will be very different than they expect when Ifeoma takes the schedules from them, releasing them from the constraints of their father. Jaja takes delight in Aunty Ifeoma’s beautiful and vibrant garden. Kambili, who could barely speak when she arrived in Nsukka, found herself not only talking but laughing after spending time with her Aunt’s family and becoming close to the family’s priest, Father Amadi.
Still, things happen that Kambili knows her father would disapprove of. When praying, Ifeoma and her children incorporate Igbo praise songs. Ifeoma and her daughter Amaka wear not just pants but shorts. And, when Ifeoma receives word that Papa Nnukwu is ill, she brings him back to Nsukka. Kambili worries about sleeping under the same roof as a heathen, though Ifeoma tries to teach her that he is not a heathen but a traditionalist.
The taste of freedom that the teenagers receive while visiting their Aunt creates a growing wedge between them, especially Jaja, and Eugene while at the same time the military government increases persecution of dissidents. Aunty Ifeoma faces her own challenges as the university claims that she is encouraging students rioting about the poor conditions they experience. Just as the government has a dictatorial military Head of State, the University of Nigeria has abandoned the traditional and more democratic administration in favor of a single Head. Kambili and Jaja must take responsibility and carve out their own beliefs like never before as the adults sink into their own crises.
I was most confounded by Kambili’s close relationship with Father Amadi. She has an obvious crush on him, and her family is aware of it, yet Kambili and Father Amadi often spend time alone. He helped her find her voice so he was a positive force, but the power differential due to age and status made me uncomfortable. Even though Amadi knew of Kambili’s feelings towards him, he continued to see her privately. Perhaps, though, this is a Western perspective that is irrelevant in the context of the novel.
No characters in the novel are purely good or purely evil but are complicated and challenging. Certainly, the strict Catholicism (linked to colonialism) of Eugene is critiqued, and one character argues that religion and oppression are inseparable, but other types of religion are modeled by Ifeoma, Papa Nnukwu, and Father Amadi. Though the problems of the ruling government form the backdrop of the novel, they are not as prevalent as in Half of a Yellow Sun or some of the stories in That Thing Around Your Neck. As in all her fiction, Adichie’s prose is masterful, achingly beautiful, and lasting.