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02 November 2006


Fourth Estate £12.99 (0-00-717611-2) Church Times Bookshop £11.70

THIS gripping, chilling story by the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the best first novels I’ve read for some time.

Her 15-year-old narrator Kambili is growing up in a Nigeria being slowly reduced to anarchy by a brutalising military coup. Yet, behind the high walls of Kambili’s luxurious home, her millionaire father Eugene imposes an equally despotic rule. He was converted as a young man by a white Roman Catholic missionary, whose strict teaching he emulates with a fervour that is both impressive and appalling.

But Eugene’s own father is unconverted, and their estrangement lies at the heart of the novel. Kambili and Jaja are allowed to see their grandfather for only 15 minutes a year at Christmas, lest he contaminate them. It is only when the two are sent to stay with Eugene’s outspoken sister and her children that their arid lives begin to unravel.

When their grandfather joins them, too, because he is taken ill, Kambili finds herself sleeping at night in the same room as her cousin and her "heathen" grandfather, frozen with terror, should her father learn of it. Of course he does, and the horrifying scene when he punishes his children for not telling him of this pollution, using the same means by which he was once punished by the missionary for masturbating, is unforgettable.

Adichie’s unbiased characterisation makes you see Eugene as a whole: a devout, brave, generous, politically incorruptible man, owner of the only newspaper with the courage to criticise the military regime. The fact that he is also violent and bigoted is almost kept in balance by his undoubted good side. Yet one is haunted by a particular dark secret that the author doesn’t spell out until she needs to.

His family is drawn equally deftly: Kambili’s tense, painful shyness and genuine devotion to the father who makes her life so narrow; Jaja’s more enigmatic, quietly rebellious presence in the silent house; their mother’s downtrodden martyrdom (but, again, not quite what it seems) — all three are fleshed out with skill and a refreshing economy of detail.

Adichie shows, she doesn’t tell, and never relies on her "exotic" subject-matter for effect. She vividly evokes a world most of us know nothing about; and we leave it enriched. It is an impressive début.

Peggy Woodford

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