Book Review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus
I absolutely adore Adichie's books, so it was a joy to revisit Purple Hibiscus.
The story is told by fifteen year old Kambili whose father, Eugene, is a wealthy business man and prominent public figure. He takes huge personal risks in publishing stories in his newspaper, The Standard, that challenge the actions of the Nigerian government. In addtion, Eugene donates considerable sums to worthy charitable organisations and local families. He is a staunch Catholic and rejects wholeheartedly anything he considers heathen. This includes his own father who is a follower of traditional beliefs. Within his own household, however, Eugene is a cruel tyrant subjecting Kambili, her brother Jaja and her mother to horrendous physical and pyschological abuse.
Using an extended flashback Adichie tells the story of the events which lead to Jaja standing up to his father. He does this at first by not going to church. This act of rebellion initially seems like the 'resolution' of the story, but it is in fact followed by an additional section of text which reveals far more serious repercussions which then begin to unfold.
Through the voice of Kambili we are able to hear the power that abusers have over their victims. What makes Purple Hibiscus so fascinating is Adichie's clever portrayal of the complexity of Eugene's character. Whilst the reader primarily simply wants the abuse to end (in this respect it is similar to Tara Westover's Educated) they are also fascinated by Eugene. Interestingly Eugene's sister, Auntie Ifeoma doesn't demonstrate any of the same cruel traits of character. She is seen as intelligent, open minded, poor and political.
In Purple Hibiscus we investigate religion, hypocrisy, politics, charity and culture. These are big issues which run alongside an almost separate 'rites of passage' story where we see Kambili fall in love with an unobtainable priest, Father Amadi.
The characterisation is fabulous in this story, the structure is effective and the political insight fascinating for anyone interested in Nigeria. Like all first person narratives, with an unreliable narrator, it is fascinating to consider the portrayal of character from alternate perspectives. What I found particularly interesting was how little space was given to exploring Kambili's mother's thoughts.
The only thing I'd change in Purple Hibiscus is affording a little more time to finding out what happens next, after Jaja's release from prison. Perhaps there might be a sequel one day.
Book Discussion Questions on Adichie's Purple Hibiscus
What do you think are the reasons for Eugene's behaviour?
What similarities can you see between Eugene and his sister? What is your opinion of Aunt Ifeoma's parenting style?
Jaja was convicted for the crime, not his mother? The narrator says that no one believed her confession. What do you think?
Why did Jaja take the blame for the murder of his father?
Kimbali's grandfather is known as a heathen to Eugene and a traditionalist to his sister. What does this difference in viewpoints reveal about their different attitudes to religion?
How is Father Amadi different to missionaries that Eugene and Auntie encountered when they were young?
Is there anything to reproach about Father Amadi's behaviour?
What different types of inequalities are explored in the novel?
In the novel there are numerous instances of things not being what they seem. What examples can you think of where the appearance of events differs to the reality? Explore the significance of this?
What do the purple hibiscus symbolize?
Father Benedict is still considered to be the new priest, even though he has been in the role for seven years. This is, according to Kambile because he is white. Discuss the concept of being an outsider both in relation to this specific story and in literature more generally?
The story is set against the backdrop of political instability. Auntie Ifeoma is likely to leave Nigeria and move to America. This is criticized by her friends who claim that she will become a second class citizen in America. Discuss.
Bookclub Questions on Adichie's Purple Hibiscus (if you haven't read the book!)
Adichie has written a small book (I was lucky enough to have my school Headteacher agree to give copies to all Year 12 students) where she outlines her views of feminism. I've linked to the clip in this post and the full transcript. It is utterly brilliant. If you have time watch or read this Ted Talk of We Should All be Feminists before your bookclub meeting and discuss its importance.
Adichie's book. won what was then known as the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Purple Hibiscus.. The prize has since ceased to exist in the format it was in. This is what Salman Rushdie said about the prize. “Isn’t this the very oddest of beasts… a school of literature whose supposed members deny vehemently that they belong to it? Worse these denials are simply disregarded! It seems the creature has taken on a life of its own,” Discuss your views on 'the Commonwealth'.
Eugene is descirbed as being too much the product of colonialism. Regardless of if you have read the book discuss what do you think this means?
Discuss the idea of using religion to justify controversial beliefs and actions.
It is through gardening and helping his aunt that Jaja starts to find a strength and purpose to his existence. What activity has helped you through difficult times
At different points in this story Kambili has all of her beliefs challenged. Have you ever felt the ground shift under your feet and lose everyhing you believed in? Would you like to share what happened?
Kimbala's cousin is prejudiced against her because she has wealth and a seemingly privileged lifestyle. Have you ever allowed your own prejudices and jealousies to stop you seeing the truth of a situation?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a first person narrative when writing fiction?
Personal Response to Adichie's Purple Hibiscus
I remember when I read Purple Hibiscus the first time I was fascinated by the connections Adichie made, to Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I was fascinated that she actually spent part of her childhood living in Achebe's house - so cool! My first reading of Purple Hibiscus focused a lot on considering how colonialism was explored through the book. I think I felt that Adichie somehow was a figurehead for all modern Nigerian literature. Hardly fair on my part!
In this reading of Purple Hibiscus I spent less time exploring whether this was a modern take on the themes specific to 'post-colonail literature' and more time reflecting on the theme of domestic abuse that dominates the story.. This highlighted for me how we bring different things or priorities to the reading of a book. There is no such thing as objectivity. I absolutely loved revisiting Purple Hibiscus. it served to remind me what a top class writer Adiche is. I now need to re-read all of her books, especially Half of a Yellow Sun, which was one of the books I wrote on in my dissertation for a Masters Degree in English.
Returning from Overseas
I woke up this morning to a typically wet and drizzly English day. The sky is a blanket of grey cloud and there's a chill in the air. When I don't need to go anywhere I quite enjoy a rainy day. Settling indoors with a book and, ideally, a bar of chocolate is pretty close to heaven for me.
Today the weather made me feel gloomy so my thoughts went immediately to Bangkok. It doesn't drizzle there. The rain comes down in torrents that flood the drains. It make everyone late for work, ruins shoes and then disappears as quickly as it arrives. I laughed at myself to think that I was actually missing Thai rain as I've cursed it often enough!
Nostalgic for Bangkok
I am missing Bangkok, and at some point, no doubt I'll go on to create a sensible article on managing change, addressing closure and so on. There is lots to miss - some of it heartfelt, most of it people based, but some of it just plain bonkers and as shallow as an English puddle of rain. These are some of the things, in no particular order, that I'll miss.
Things I Miss in Bangkok
My friends. I've posted loads of times about it being people not places that are important. Thank goodness for social media as my friends are all in Bangkok. They are, by and large stranded over there, until the corona virus is sorted out, so are all spending their summers renting villas on beaches, doing huge road trips across Thailand and generally living the travellers' dream. Not jealous at all!
The pool. I'm not a particularly good swimmer, but going to the pool was my number one stress busting activity in Bangkok. I can't imagine ever ever having such a lovely place to swim again. During those times that I was living, but not working in Bangkok, I'd get up for a swim and once finished be spoiled by the restaurant staff bringing me a pot of tea as I reclined next to the pool watching the golfers. That was the life! I like to walk now, as it serves a similar purpose, but .it isn't quite the same.
Having a full time housekeeper. When Khun Nong came to work for us we struck gold. She is a lovely person who helped us run our house like clockwork. She became a friend who I miss each day. Prior to Nong working with us I have so many funny stories of housekeepers who weren't quite so good. I think the story that tops the bill was coming home from holiday to find that one lady had painted several rooms and random bricks in our house bright pink. To this day I don't know why!
The weather. It isn't just the Brits who discuss the weather. I love the drama of Bangkok storms. I never quite got used to leaving a shopping mall and being hit by a wall of heat. I miss the conversations amongst my library team as they buttoned up in scarves and cardigans (if the weather dipped below thirty degrees!) about how chilly it was. I guess as an English person weather has to feature in what I miss.
The quirks. All cultures and societies have 'norms' that seem quirky to outsiders. I often noticed different ways of living as Mick drove us all to school. I miss seeing people in the street making their offerings to monks in a morning; I miss seeing old ladies walking to the early morning markets in their PJs; I miss the wais that Thais offer as a sign of respect; I miss having to stand stock still as the anthem was played at 6.00 pm and the flag was raised on a morning. I miss seeing adults going to university in what is essentially a 'school uniform'; I miss watching people meticulously sweep their patch of land outside their house; I miss the old man we drove past every day sat outside his house in a sarong and a deck chair and ample midriff showing. I miss it all.
The traffic. I don't really miss the traffic and I'm glad that roundabouts don't pose the problem in the UK that they seem to in Bangkok. Getting my last driving license was a bit of a drama that, now I'm not there, I can think back fondly to! It didn't seem to matter so much if I occasionally forgot to indicate. Seeing cars and motorbikes laden with people and belongings, coming up a dual-carriageway the wrong way was simply normal. I kind of miss it not mattering if I didn't follow the rules!
Shopping. I miss the madness of shopping in Bangkok. From early morning flower markets to top end designer shopping, it was all like entering a parallel universe. I miss the ladies marketing expensive products, shouting through loud microphones in glamorous outfits.
Restaurants. Living on the edge of Bangkok I didn't often venture to the restaurants in town. I do miss our old favourites though, especially having the salmon at Wine Connection, or pizza on a Friday night. The Green and White was an institution! We spent a lot of time with the kids playing 'word games' and chatting in restaurants, or when they were a bit bigger, sitting drinking coffee and beer (back in the days before I was teetotal) whilst the girls met their friends and we were hanging around to collect them.
Learning about a different culture. I got myself into 'hot water' so many times when I didn't understand how Thai culture works. From 'saving face' to 'land of smiles' to 'everyone being involved in every task’ the nuances of learning about a new culture is never dull and kept me on my toes. It is this learning about culture, learning about your own unconscious (or conscious) bias, in your interactions that is one of the fascinating things about living overseas.
Our Dogs. Who would have thought that I'd have ended up having two dogs! Fizz sadly died in 2018. Everyone is super sad that we can't bring Wizz back, but she is too old to travel. Wizz is happy though as she is happy is going to move to live with our lovely housekeeper's mum. She already knows her well As she sometimes stays in the summer with Nong when we have visited the UK.
Adventures. Mick has been coming across old photos whilst he has been packing up our lives in Bangkok. We've had some fantastic adventures and trips. My friends with small children have been reminding me how, when travelling with little ones, you basically need to pack everything except the kitchen sink. It's hard work, but what memories are made of.
My library colleagues and friends. It's a good job I said in no particular order as this should be near the top of my list. I still miss my library colleagues and I've made friends for life there. I've also collaborated with the wonderful Khun Duang on our books. (I really must do something about getting the drafts we still have completed into a finished format!) I learned a lot about leadership when I took on the library role and it is testament to my colleagues that they gave me a chance and forgave all the mistakes I made!
Khun Lyn and Pang. When I go into my kitchen in Bangkok I have a view out to the temple that Khun Lyn was cremated in. Lyn and Pang from the library both sadly died from cancer whilst I was there.. Seeing the sun set over Lyn’s temple each evening always reminds me of Lyn. I miss her.
The brunches. Oh my goodness, we have had some great brunches, especially at the Sheraton Grande. I've wonderful memories of Christmas days there too. Back in the day they were boozy affairs with a ton of eating and free flow bubbles. I haven't found a similar place in the UK yet.
Unwanted visitors. As I write my friend just sent me a text of a snake and the caption "the only thing I had to share the beach with today." I miss the unexpected of never quite knowing what you might come across just outside your door. In our case it was often monitor lizards that came calling.
Day trips. For most of our time in Bangkok we were just getting on with life. Going to work, helping the kids with their homework and activities, such as music lessons dominated our time. Every now and then though we'd make the effort - be tourists for the day and go off exploring the city. This sometimes extended into a staycation with a 'sleep over' in one of the fancy hotels in town. Whether with Mick, Mick and the girls, or my friends we had some great times.
Turning 50! I had a ball. My dear friend Rachel coordinated a wonderful afternoon tea, followed by a trip on the river, and cocktails. Mick had then arranged a very swanky night in the Shangri-La where we had the most fantastic suite you could imagine. I turned 50 in style!
The Kids' Achievements. The kids had a ball at school. There's too much to write about. Plays, musicals, sports teams, charity groups ... another post beckons!
The beach. I should say the beaches. My memory is shocking and I couldn't begin to say which beaches we've visited when. We've taken a lot of walks, made a lot of sandcastles (less so recently) and used a lot of suncream. I miss going to the beach.
The view from my soon to be ex-apartment. This matters more to me than I expected. I love our view. However nice your neighbours are waking up to their front lawn isn't so exciting.
Moving Forward when Relocating
The rain has stopped so I think that it is time that I stop reminiscing. I think it is ok to miss things though. It doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to our next adventures as I really am. I've not mentioned missing Mick as he is going to be back with me next week. :) I'm looking forward to our shipment arriving which Saint Mick has just packed up. Having my Thai belongings around me will be lovely reminders of a fantastic time living overseas. I'm sure there were bad bits too abut living in Bangkok, but today I can't remember any of them!
A House Full
I haven't written anything on my family page for such a long time. Largely, because during the corona virus lockdown there hasn't felt much to say. I've been thrilled to have the girls at home with me, upset to not be able to get back home to Mick in Bangkok and frustrated for mum and dad that, almost six months after his fall, dad still isn't back home. There has been plenty of adjustments to having almost a house full, but we've done ok and muddled along.
At last I have some news. Mick is heading home and we will have a proper full house again soon. I am sure that will bring its own joys, woes and frustrations! Right now, though, it is making me smile.
Finding your Niche for Published Articles
Whilst we have been apart I have kept busy and I've written a lot of articles (even some with possible earning potential) on diverse issues for a variety of publications. Avoiding arguing with grown up children, respecting your oldies and running a library effectively during lockdown to name a few.
The key to a good blog is to find a 'niche' and you can see that I don't have one (Jack of all trades and master of none!). I seem to babble on about many things. That's why it works better to write for someone else. I've got a lot of articles for different journals on Medium including book reviews, managing temper tantrums and exploring the level of toxicitiy in friendship.
It seems a shame not to occasionally put something on here though and having our family back together is something I wanted to share.
Being Apart from your Partner
With the corona virus situation I haven't seen Mick for many months. (It's an odd thing living away from a partner. It needs managing carefully. Time seems to go really slowly (but the weeks tick by before you know it too!) Overall, being apart hasn't been fun though, in fact, at times, it has been downright sad. As there wasn't an easy option for Mick to return to Thailand if he visited us this summer, we have taken the plunge for him to leave work and return to the UK.
I'm EXCITED to have Mick back with us, but I am also a little bit anxious. We have a lot of 'next steps' to figure out, not least finding another job!
It is a very strange experience to pack up a whole life from over 6000 miles away. (Who would have thought we would have stayed 18 years!) It is beyond weird to think that I won't be seeing my friends again, but at least social media helps me keep in touch. I guess it's not so important, BUT I can't believe I am not going back to my lovely Thana city pool, or having any more of my lovely brunches. (I'm so shallow!) Mick returning is a good move though and, whilst I am allowing myself a little nostalgia about our life in Bangkok, we've got lots to look forward to and oodles of adventures ahead.
When I quit work suddenly back in 2018 I was super busy and the impact of not having a job only came later. I didn't anticipate how that would feel. Work is such an important part of our identity, so I do worry a little for Mick. He seems quite happy though with the idea of relaxing and reading. He has A LOT of Waterstones gift vouchers to spend, that the teachers have kindly given him. Little does he know I've got a lot of 'jobs' lined up for him!
There will be lots of new blogging opportunities for me in the future about how things pan out. Work and identity; managing a busy household, village life, leadership, job hunting; relocating from overseas... to name but a few.
For now though I'm just going to enjoy the idea of having the old lad back here with me. I'm counting down the days. I can no longer call him Saint Mick of Thana but he is still my grumpy old fella. Our place in Thana City, Bangkok will become someone else's home. I just hope they love it as much as we have.
We're going to miss you Thailand.
Book Review of Sally Rooney's Normal People
I first read and enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People a few months ago. I remember thinking the level of the self-reflection and introspection by the main characters, Marianne and Connell were intense. Somehow it put me in mind of Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay.
Both books are love stories (of a kind) and both deal with the complexity of emotions resulting from attraction, envy and faithlessness. Beauvoir’s book is autobiographical, it was written as an act of revenge against a 17 year old who came between her and Sartre, with whom she was involved. Sally Rooney's Normal People isn't autobiographical. In an interview for the Irish times she states "“it's not autobiographical . . . but I did feel that as characters, as people, their psychology was very much drawn from facets and aspects of my own psychology as a younger adult and even now” (Rooney, 2020).
Normal People traces the relationship of Marianne with Connell as they move from their small town in the West of Ireland to university and finally to Connell accepting a place on a creative writing course in New York. Marianne is wealthy, middle class and intellectually snobby; Connell is sporty, bright but considered 'the wrong sort of person' for a match to be possible between them.
The book’s focus is almost completely on the dynamic of Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Who they are and the influence of nature and nurture in determining their relationship is never far from the surface of the text. Domestic abuse, bullying, parenting, class, wealth are all topics that are explored and are all used, in part, to explore not only the emotional relationship of the two characters, but also the sexual relationship between them.
I can see why Normal People has such appeal for young people in particular. What I particularly found intriguing about it is how the text is structured. The chapter headings are dates at which key events occur and several months pass between the beginning of a new chapter. This often reflects a period of time during which Connell and Marianne were 'seeing other people' or not in the same physical location. The reader often learns about a change in the relationship and then a flashback approach is used to show how the current status quo of that particular chapter occurs. (Does that even make sense?!) Consequently, there is a kind of series of mini flashbacks that I imagine are used when dividing up the book for the BBC Three TV series. which stars Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal in the roles of Marianne and Connell.
Book Discussion Questions on Sally Rooney's Normal People
Bookclub Questions on Sally Rooney's Normal People (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Sally Rooney's Normal People
I am an avid fan of the Fortunately podcast, available on BBC Sounds. When hearing Jane Garvey and Fi Glover discussing the serialization on their podcast, I thought I would watch it with my grown up girls. When I mentioned this to them though they'd already seen it. I think the knowledge that it had a lot of ‘sex scenes’ was incentive to not watch the programme with their old mum!
Not to be put off, I started watching the series anyway. however only watched the first half of one episode before deciding that the series wasn’t for me. I simply couldn’t be doing with the intensity of all that exploration of first love. If I'm honest, I felt a little bit the same when I read David Nicholls' One Day. It was great, but I wouldn't have wanted to watch it on screen. One of these days I’ll need to reflect why I am open to reading about teenage angst and first love, but not viewing it. I am tempted to revisit She Came to Stay and see how I respond to that. (Perhaps I'll have to add to the list of ways that I know I am middle aged!) For now though I’ll finish by saying I definitely would recommend Sally Rooney's Normal People, but there are aspects of it that I found uncomfortable to read.
Book Review of Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles
I read The Song of Achilles as part of a challenge to read all of the winners of the Women’s Prize for fiction. (Naomi Alderman's The Power and Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing are other worthy winners.) It is an effective and original re-telling of part of Homer’s The Iliad, focusing on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles.
Patroclus narrates his own story starting from when he is banished from his father’s kingdom, after inadvertently killing another child. It is Patroclus' own voice that takes us through this journey. It being with narrating how his father Peleus gives Patroclus to Achille's father, as penance for the crime and ends when Achille's mother, Thetis finally agrees that Patroclus and Achilles lay together after their deaths. It would be fair to say taht Thetis, a goddess of water was not a fan of Patroclus!
Patroclus comments how he is seen as weak and effeminate and possibly ‘simple’. This contrasts with half god Achilles, for whom things come easy and who is strikingly handsome and talented. The reader views Patroclus as insightful, warm and gentle and arugably too good for Achilles'. This is a clever use of story telling where an unreliable narrator is used to seemingly and inadvertently improve his own standing with the audience.
It feels like most of the adolescent love story aspect of The Song of Achilles is Miller’s own invention, rather than any kind of retelling of history. It is as we move from adolescence of the characters into the latter end of the Trojan War years that the story returns more closely to Homer's Iliad.
Througout The Song of Achilles the reader is encouraged to observe the contrast between tender Achilles and ruthless killer Achilles through the eyes of Briseis, the woman Achilles took as ‘slave lover’ in order to save her from cruel Agamemon. Agamemom, is (for anyone like me, whose knowledge of Greeky mythology is sketchy to say the least!) brother of Menelaus, husband of Helen, about whom all the fuss is about!
The Song of Achilles won, what was until recently called the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, but is now known as the Women's Prize for Fiction. There is a lot to enjoy in the book. I like how the narrator isn’t presented as a typical alpha male. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Achilles’ mother Thetis A mother-in-law figure from hell, she is powerful and proud. A feminist reading of the text is invited when looking at her role and that of the other women in the story.
I’d be fascinated whether Pat Barker had read The Song of Achilles when she wrote her book The Silence of the Girls, which was shortlisted for the same prize in 2019. There is definitely a similarity in the style of the story and it records roughly the same events, but putting the women at the centre and using Briseis as the main narrative voice
In both cases the focus is on those heroes who have been marginalized. In the retellings of the stories. In The Song of Achilles Miller is very conscious of how she is doing this. Miller has Odyssey (who plays only a small part in her version of events) comment towards the end of the story, somewhat tongue in cheek, that when remembered in future years he might actually be considered more famous than Achilles and Patroclus. This is an amusing little coment.
. It is always interesting to consider famous stories from alternate perspectives and Miller successfully does this in The Song of Achilles.
Book Discussion Questions on The Song of Achilles
Who do you think is the more attractive character and why? Patrocus or Achilles?
Thetis is presented as a ‘mother-in-law’ from hell figure? Does she have any redeeming qualities?
In Greek mythology women are frequently raped and seen as two-dimensional characters. It has been said that if they are not being adored then they are spending their time lamenting the loss of their sons, lovers and fathers. Discuss how women are presented in the Song of Achilles? How does it sit with your modern views of ‘womanhood’?
Which of the male characters is most flawed. What is their hubris?
Do you think The Song of Achilles is a worthy winner of the Orange Prize? Why or why not?
Achilles arguably cheated the gods by not fighting Hector sooner, as he knew it was only Hector who could kill him? Should he have fought Hector sooner and saved thousands of deaths?
Which character in the book would you like to learn more about?
What is your favourite part of this story and why?
Bookclub Questions on Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (if you haven't read the book).
In warfare would you prefer to be tending the sick or fighting the battles?
Achilles' logic for not fighting, but allowing Patroclus to dress up and pretend to be him is arguably very flawed? Can you think of an instance in your own life where your logic has been flawed? Share what happened with your bookclub friends.
After Patroclus tells Briseis he can’t love her because of his love for Achilles she says that she would rather stay with Patroclus as his ‘sister’, rather than not be with him at all? Would this arrangement be acceptable to you?
Do you know many Greek myths and legends? Share any stories that you can remember.
Who amongst you would make a great Greek tragic hero?
Have you read Homer’s Iliad? If so, wow! If not, what is the most literary book you have read?!
Personal Response to Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles
If I hadn’t set myself the challenge of reading the Women’s Prize for fiction winners this isn’t a book I’d have picked up. I lack the imagination to really go along with the combination of gods, demi-gods and humans interacting. I do think Miller made a brave attempt at creating rounded characters that took us beyond simply what the Greek heroes are remembered for.
For any readers who do love myths and legends this has got to be a winner. I very much recommend reading The Song of Achilles back to back with Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. Having ventured to the world of Greek mythology so far, why not also consider reading Stephen Fry’s Mythos. It is a book that has been on my shelf for too long and I might now venture into its colourful pages!