Earnest debut about a 15-year-old girl’s struggle to blossom under the tyranny of her father’s—and country’s—strong arm.
Kambili and her older brother Jaja live a luxurious life in Nigeria as the only children of a powerful man. Their father virtually supports his home village, owns factories, and, most importantly, owns the newspaper that champions free speech and the rights of the people at a time when silence is far safer. Papa is a hero. But at home in their quiet marble palace, Kambili and Jaja live in fear of regular beatings: “lessons” on how to become more pious Catholics. Mama’s miscarriages are the result of these, and Jaja has a deformed finger. The three are forever in danger of breaking the rules but are never quite sure what the rules are. Papa begrudgingly allows Kambili and her brother to visit his sister Ifeoma, and the trip, the first time away from their parents, is a revelation to the siblings. Widowed Auntie Ifeoma is a university professor and mother of her own three markedly different children. Though poor, Auntie Ifeoma’s house is filled with laughter, discussion, opinions and freedom, so different from the tightly regimented schedule Kambili and Jaja are used to that at first Kambili barely opens her mouth. Slowly (and with the help of young Father Amadi, whom she develops a crush on), Kambili begins to enjoy life a little. Alongside Kambili’s narrative is a portrayal of the sad state of contemporary African politics—the poverty-inducing corruption, rioting, and uncertainty of basic needs. Like many first-novelists, Adichie tries for too much; her portrayal of Kambili’s home life is striking but provides far too incomplete a depiction of Papa. Her portrait of Nigeria is fascinating but fragmented. Auntie Ifeoma and the cousins are likable enough but not memorable.
Nonetheless, with Kambili the author has created a compelling narrative—and a surprising punch at end. A young African voice welcome to American shores.