Set in Nigeria, the novel traces the story of Kambili and Jaja, children of a rich, fanatical and oppressive Catholic patriarch Eugene Achike, presenting a moving picture of the effect of domestic violence on children; of religious fanaticism; of the political unrest in Nigeria and the privations and trials faced by Nigerians.
Eugene is a self-made Big Man. Brought up by Christian missionaries, he is a deeply religious, fanatical Catholic, who “punishes” his family for the slightest trespass against God, for not meeting his exacting standards or for disobeying him in any way. So deep is his fanaticism that he even ignores his own father, who is a “heathen,” and tells his children to “not eat in that heathen’s house.”
It isn’t until a military coup in Nigeria forces the children to live with their Aunt Ifeoma, where the laugher and conversations flow feely, that Kambili and Jaja begin to acknowledge the silence, oppression and violence that has marred their life so far. While Jaja is quick to adapt and acknowledge the past, it takes Kambili more time to get the “bubbles in her throat” to part and allow the words to flow out. It is at her aunt’s house that she meets her grandfather for an extended period, and learns that he is not a “heathen” but a “traditionalist,” described through a beautiful passage describing his daily morning prayer to the ancestors.
At her aunt’s house in Nuskka, she meets Father Amadi, a local priest who, unlike the priest back home Father Benedict, is a more easy-going and friendly, who sees nothing wrong in breaking into Igbo songs in the middle of rosary, and who takes an easier and more relaxed view of religion. This is her first taste of kindness from a grown man, and she transfers all her repressed love onto him.
The idyll of an escape from the oppressive atmosphere in Enugu is shattered when her aunt decides to leave for America and Father Amadi is transferred to Germany…
This novel is a beautiful coming of age story of 15-year old Kambili, a commentary on the political situation in Nigeria and a treatise on religious oppression.
I particularly enjoyed it because it gave me a peek into a new culture; exposed me to words that I had never heard before, such as umu m (my children), ke kwanu (how are you/how was your day?), nwunye m )mt wife); and introduced new smells, like that of frying plantains and bleaching palm oil. Though Adichie isn’t the first African author I’ve read, hers is the first book I’ve truly enjoyed. It most certainly is a must-read.