PART ONE – BREAKING GODS: PALM SUNDAY
Palm Sunday marks a change in the Achike household. Narrator Kambili, the 15-year old daughter of a devout Catholic, is terrified of the punishment her brother Jaja will incur for missing the day’s mass. When the family arrives home from church, Papa demands an explanation from his son. Why did he not receive communion? Jaja says it is because the wafer gives him bad breath. Papa is shocked and reminds Jaja that not accepting the Host – the body of their Lord – is death. Jaja responds that he will die. Papa then throws his heavy leather-bound missal across the room, missing Jaja but breaking his wife’s beloved figurines.
Kambili’s Papa Eugene is a revered member of Enugu, Nigeria. A prominent and wealthy business leader, Eugene is praised by St. Agnes’ white Father Benedict for using his power to spread the Gospel and speak the truth. However, inside his own home, he is a feared authoritarian and strict disciplinarian. Kambili notes the fading black eye of her Mama Beatrice. Kambili still takes pride in her father and his deeds, though he urges the family to stay humble.
Tensions rise in the Achike house throughout the day. Jaja helps his Mama clean up the jagged pieces of the figurines while Papa has his tea. Kambili is dismayed that her father does not offer her a “love sip” of his tea. Papa drinks quietly as if Jaja had not just talked back to him. Kambili goes up to her room and daydreams before lunch. She stares out over the expansive yard lined with frangipani, bougainvillea trees and hibiscus bushes. Mama’s red hibiscuses are the pride of their parish. Each Sunday, flowers are plucked by Mama’s prayer group members. Even the government officials who Jaja say try to bribe Papa cannot resist the hibiscus.
The usual Sunday routines do not occur. Mama does not plait Kambili’s hair in the kitchen and Jaja does not go up to his own room to read before lunch. Kambili comes downstairs when lunch is served by Sisi, the servant girl. Papa says grace over the meal, a ritual lasting more than twenty minutes. He addresses the Blessed Virgin as Our Lady, Shield of the People of Nigeria, a title he has invented. The meal proceeds in silence until Mama mentions that a new product has been delivered to the house that afternoon – bottles of cashew juice from one of Papa’s factories.
Papa pours a glass of the yellow liquid for each member of the family. Kambili hopes that if she praises the juice, Papa will forget that he has not yet punished Jaja for his insubordination. Both Kambili and Mama offer kind words to Papa about the juice. Jaja says nothing. Papa stares at his son and again demands an explanation. Jaja says he has no words in his mouth. He then excuses himself before Papa can give the final prayer. Kambili swallows all of her cashew juice and has a severe coughing fit.
Kambili spends the rest of the night sick in her room. Both Papa and Mama come to check on her, but she is nauseated and deep in thought about her brother. Mama offers her some soup, but Kambili vomits. She asks about Jaja, who did not visit her after dinner. Mama tells her daughter that Jaja did not come down for supper either. Kambili then asks about Mama’s figurines. Mama will not replace them.
Kambili lies in bed and realizes that Papa’s missal did not just break Mama’s figurines. Everything was tumbling down. Kambili thinks Jaja’s defiance is like the purple hibiscus in her Aunty Ifeoma’s garden. They represent a new kind of freedom, unlike the chants of freedom shouted at the Government Center. The purple hibiscus represents a freedom to do and to be.
Kambili narrates the book in the first person, but in the past tense. The book has a unique structure that begins with the events of Palm Sunday, as described in the first chapter. The next twelve chapters chronicle the events that culminate in Jaja skipping communion on Palm Sunday. The following four chapters detail the immediate aftermath of Palm Sunday. The final chapter, which is the indicated as the present, is three years after the events of the rest of the novel. Kambili, now eighteen years old, is narrating what happens to her and her family when she is fifteen. Through her eyes, we see the destruction of her family as well as the crumbling political situation of Nigeria. Told from a child’s perspective, the novel is not overtly political and the debates on corruption unfold through conversation and overhearing. Since Kambili is not directly involved in activism, readers can draw their own conclusions about the political landscape from the personal experience of a young Nigerian. Her understanding of her family’s pro-democracy stance is enhanced by her experiences with her liberal aunt.
Kambili’s journey is a coming of age story set against multiple tyrannies. The corruption of her local government plays out in the background as Kambili is removed from direct strife due to her family’s wealth. Her father’s strict Catholic rule of their house is the greater tyranny Kambili must cope with. She alludes to emotions and events that will play out in the rest of the novel in the opening line, “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion…” We know there is trouble to come since the opening paragraph contains an eruption of violence. Though we do not see any abuse in this first chapter, Kambili’s fear is palpable. Her concern for the well-being of her brother signifies not only the punishments they have received in the past, but also that Jaja’s behavior is new. This is a coming of age story for Jaja as well.
Religion is at the forefront of the Achike family. Kambili’s faith is strong as she has been raised to be a devout Catholic girl. However, religion in Nigeria and also for Kambili is more complicated than it appears. The white image of God was brought over by colonialist British missionaries. Conversion to Catholicism for many Nigerians means eradicating their roots and traditions. The Achikes do not participate in any “heathen” or “pagan” rituals and are therefore singled out as model Catholics. Kambili is led to believe that anything traditional is evil, so she is severed from her ancestry. Kambili grows aware of the hypocrisy of her father’s position as religious leader. Though he is praised for his commitment to the truth as published in his newspaper, the Achikes are forbidden to tell the truth about the situation in their own home. Papa’s punishments are attempts to make his children perfect in the eyes of both the community and God. He does not enjoy abusing his family, but he believes he must correct their behavior. Mama is less severe than Papa, often pointing out the more beautiful, natural world of God. Kambili takes solace in the natural world, especially in her mother’s famous red hibiscuses. Mama’s connection with nature and respect for the natural world represents another dimension of faith. Mama finds God in the natural world, not just in the rosary. Kambili’s relationship with God is complex, consisting of the fear of hell instilled by Papa and the reverence for beauty instilled by Mama.
Their relationship with Papa is complex as well. Though it is clear that her father rules their household with an iron fist, a deep love for her Papa is evident. She swells with pride when Father Benedict praises Papa’s deeds and charity. Kambili represents modern Africa, at a crossroads between colonial faith and traditional views. Her church does not allow any worship in Igbo, their native language. There is constant tension between the Igbo rituals and the rigid, Western mores of Catholicism. Jaja’s heresy and insubordination is startling and Kambili becomes ill from the stress. Her coughing fit at dinner is a physical reaction to the change that has come over Jaja. As explored more fully in the next section, Kambili’s repression manifests itself in a loss of words.
Jaja and Mama’s actions are symbolic of the events that will unfold throughout the rest of the novel. When talking to her mother after supper, Kambili notes the recent scar on her face. Mama is a victim of Papa’s abuse, but there is a sense that she will be putting a stop to the violence. As illustrated in the following section, Mama’s figurines are a source of escapism from the tensions of home life. When she tells Kambili that she will not replace them, it is a signal that she is facing reality. Jaja’s back-talk to his father signifies that he will no longer adhere to a faith he does not believe in simply because he is threatened by violence. Both Jaja and Mama are standing up to Papa.