Purple Hibiscus is the story of Kambili Achike, a fifteen-year-old Nigerian girl living in Nigeria the wake of European colonization and withdrawal. Kambili's father, Eugene, is a fanatical Catholic and an abusive alcoholic. His family crumbles under his physically and psychologically abusive rule. A respite with liberal Catholic relatives enables the family to take ownership of their lives and escape Eugene's tyranny. Kambili comes of age and discovers her sexuality and identity. Her mother poisons Eugene, ending his hold on her.
Purple Hibiscus is set in postcolonial Nigeria, a country beset by political instability and economic difficulties. The central character is Kambili Achike, aged fifteen for much of the period covered by the book, a member of a wealthy family dominated by her devoutly Catholic father, Eugene. Eugene is both a religious zealot and a violent figure in the Achike household, subjecting his wife Beatrice, Kambili herself, and her brother Jaja to beatings and psychological cruelty.
The story is told through Kambili’s eyes and is essentially about the disintegration of her family unit and her struggle to grow to maturity. A key period is the time Kambili and her brother spend at the house of her father’s sister, Ifeoma, and her three children. This household offers a marked contrast to what Kambili and Jaja are used to. Though Catholic, it practices a completely different form of Catholicism, making for a happy, liberal place that encourages its members to speak their minds. In this nurturing environment both Kambili and Jaja become more open, more able to voice their own opinions.
Importantly, also, while at Aunty Ifeoma’s, Kambili falls in love with a young priest, Father Amadi, which awakens her sense of her own sexuality. Ultimately, a critical mass is reached in terms of the lives of Kambili, Jaja and the existence of their family as it once was. Unable to cope with Eugene’s continual violence, Beatrice poisons him. Jaja takes the blame for the crime and ends up in prison.
In the meantime, Aunty Ifeoma and her family go to America to live after she is unfairly dismissed from her job as lecturer at the University of Nigeria. The novel ends almost three years after these events, on a cautiously optimistic note. Kambili has become a young woman of eighteen, more confident than before, while her brother Jaja is about to be released from prison, hardened but not broken by his experience there. Their mother, Beatrice has deteriorated psychologically to a great degree.