This debut novel by Nigerian author Adichie is a haunting story whose impact lingers long after the last page is turned. It describes the lives of two teenaged children of a wealthy and influential Nigerian newspaper editor, who is revered for his courageous stand against a corrupt and failing government, for his unswerving rectitude and broad generosity as a pillar of the Catholic community, but who behind closed doors is a violent religious tyrant and abuser of his wife and children. All this against a backdrop of growing persecution of dissidents and intellectuals, and political and social upheaval as a coup against the government threatens.
Fifteen-year-old Kambila and her brother Jaja live under the shadow of their larger-than-life father, whose religious fanaticism has kept them subservient to his whims and isolated emotionally from the outside world. They have watched as their mother, a timid but adoring wife, is repeatedly beaten by their father, while they too show the scars and bruises of his “Catholic” zealotry. They have been allotted a stingy 15 chaperoned minutes a week to “get to know” their grandfather, living in poverty not far from the mansion they call home and denounced as a heathen by their father.
They have also never really known their feisty widowed aunt, who is struggling to survive as a university lecturer and parent of three outspoken children, until political danger at home escalates and an invitation from that aunt gives the brother and sister a chance to spend some time out of their father’s dominion, and to learn what real family life and real love can be despite the crushing poverty they see around them. Kambila, who worships her father as much as she fears him, is frozen for much of that visit but slowly begins to thaw and recognize the insanity of her home life while discovering romantic love for the first time.
Family tragedy comes in a tidal wave that changes everything, but it is just the beginning for Kambila and her family. Adichie’s intimate portrayal of lives shackled by abuse and religious zealotry is an exceptionally told story in its own right, but, for me at least, served as a metaphor for more universal issues of abuse committed in the name of political and religious fanaticism. A beautiful novel which people—especially young people–of all ethnic and religious backgrounds should make a point of reading and discussing.