Purple Hibiscus takes place in Enugu, a city in post-colonial Nigeria, and is narrated by the main character, Kambili Achike. Kambili lives with her older brother Jaja (Chukwuku Achike), a teenager who, like his sister, excels at school but is withdrawn and sullen. Kambili’s father, Papa (Eugene Achike) is a strict authoritarian whose strict adherence to Catholicism overshadows his paternal love. He punishes his wife, Mama (Beatrice Achike), and his children when they fail to live up to his impossibly high standards.
The novel begins on Palm Sunday. Jaja has refused to go to church and receive communion. Because Jaja has no reasonable excuse for missing church, Papa throws his missal at his son. The book hits a shelf containing his wife’s beloved figurines. This defiant act and resulting violence marks the beginning of the end of the Achike family. Kambili then explains the events leading up to Palm Sunday, detailing the seeds of rebellion that are planted in the children’s minds by their liberal Aunty Ifeoma, Papa’s sister.
Papa is a prominent figure in Enugu. He owns several factories and publishes the pro-democracy newspaper the Standard. He is praised by his priest, Father Benedict, and his editor, Ade Coker, for his many good works. Papa generously donates to his parish and his children’s schools. His newspaper publishes articles critical of the rampant government corruption. Since the Standard tells the truth, the staff is under constant pressure from the Head of State, the military leader who assumes the presidency following a coup. When Ade Coker is arrested, Papa’s bravery and position in the community help to free him.
Kambili is a quiet child. When she tries to speak, she often stutters or has a coughing fit. The rigid life that is shaped by her father renders her mute. Each day, she follows a schedule that allots only time to study, eat, sleep, pray and sit with her family. Kambili is a good student, rising to the top of her class. The girls at school assume she is a snob because she doesn’t socialize and always runs straight to her father’s car after class. When Kambili places second on term, Papa tells her she must excel because God expects more from her. Kambili is not a snob; she is motivated by fear, unable to create her own identity.
At Christmas, the family returns to the Papa’s ancestral town, Abba. The family supervises a feast that feeds the entire umunna – extended family. Papa is celebrated for his generosity in Abba as well. However, he does not allow his children to visit with his own father, Papa-Nnukwu, for more than fifteen minutes each Christmas. Papa calls his father a “heathen” because he still follows the religious traditions of his people, the Igbo. When Aunty Ifeoma comes to visit from her University town of Nsukka, she argues with Papa about his mistreatment of their father. But Papa is firm. He will only acknowledge and support his father if he converts. Aunty Ifeoma invites Kambili and Jaja to visit so they can go on a pilgrimage to Aokpe, site of a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary. Papa begrudgingly agrees.
Nsukka is a different world. The University is beset by fuel shortages, pay stoppages, strikes at medical clinics, blackouts, and rising food prices. The widowed Aunty Ifeoma successfully raises her three children, Amaka, Obiora and Chima, with what little she has. But her family is a happy one. Unlike Papa, Aunty Ifeoma encourages her children to question authority, raising them with faith but also intellectual curiosity. Amaka and Kambili are very different girls. Amaka, like Kambili’s classmates, assumes her cousin is a privileged snob since she does not know how to contribute to household chores. Kambili retreats into silence even in Nsukka. Jaja, on the other hand, blossoms. He follows the example of his younger cousin Obiora, concocting his own rite of initiation out of helping his family, tending a garden and killing a chicken. Kambili begins to open up when she meets Father Amadi. A Nigerian-born priest, Father Amadi is gentle and supportive. He encourages Kambili to speak her mind. Through Father Amadi, Kambili learns that it is possible to think for oneself and yet still be devout. She even begins speaking above a whisper to Amaka, and they become closer.
Kambili and Jaja learn to be more accepting in Nsukka. When he falls ill, Aunty Ifeoma brings Papa-Nnukwu to her flat. Kambili and Jaja decide not to tell Papa that they are sharing a home with a “heathen.” Kambili witnesses her grandfather’s morning ritual of innocence, where he offers thanks to his gods and proclaims his good deeds. She sees the beauty in this ritual and begins to understand that the difference between herself and Papa-Nnukwu is not so great. When her father finds out that Kambili and Jaja have spent time with their grandfather, he brings them home. Amaka gives her a painting of Papa-Nnukwu to take back to Enugu. Papa punishes his children by pouring hot water over their feet for “walking into sin.”
Pressure mounts on Papa. Soldiers arrest Ade Coker again and torture him, and they raid the offices of the Standard and shut down his factories for health code violations. Shortly thereafter, the government murders Ade Coker. Tensions rise in the home too. Kambili and Jaja take comfort in the painting of Papa-Nnukwu. Papa catches them, however, and he beats Kambili so severely that she ends up in critical condition in the hospital. When she is well enough to be released, she goes to Nsukka instead of home. Her crush on Father Amadi intensifies and she begins to break out of her shell more, learning how to laugh and to join in the Igbo songs. But Aunty Ifeoma gets fired from the University and decides to go to America to teach. Kambili is floored. She is not sure what she will do without the refuge provided by her aunt and cousins. Amaka does not want to go to America either because her roots are in Nigeria.
Mama comes to Nsukka, limping out of a cab. Papa has beaten her again, causing another miscarriage. Though both Kambili and Jaja have seen this happen before, this time it is different. Aunty Ifeoma urges her not to return to Enugu. But she takes her children back with her. The following week is Palm Sunday, when Jaja refuses to go to church. In the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, Jaja grows increasingly defiant. He finally demands that he and Kambili spend Easter with their cousins. Weakened by what the children believe is stress, he allows them to go to Nsukka. A few days later, Mama calls. Papa has died. When Mama left Nsukka, she began poisoning her husband’s tea. Jaja takes the blame for the crime and goes to prison.
The final chapter of the book takes place nearly three years later. Kambili and Mama visit a hardened Jaja in prison. He has faced severe punishments and miserable conditions over the course of his term. However, with the leadership in Nigeria now changing again, their lawyers are confident that Jaja will be released. Though Jaja has learned to not expect a favorable outcome, Kambili is overjoyed. She dreams that she will take Jaja to America to visit Aunty Ifeoma, together they will plant orange trees in Abba, and purple hibiscuses will bloom again.