The narrator, a 15-year-old girl named Kambili Achike, who lives in Enugu, Nigeria, says that “things started to fall apart” in her family after one specific day: her 17-year-old brother Jaja refused to go to communion on Palm Sunday, and her Papa, Eugene, a devout Catholic, threw his missal (a Catholic liturgical book) in anger, breaking the ceramic figurines on the étagère (a piece of furniture with a series of shelves).
The first line references “Things Fall Apart,” the famous novel about the coming of missionaries and colonialism to a village in Nigeria by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who was one of Adichie’s influences. The novel begins in the middle of a confusing scene, but we already see that the family is very religious, and that they are familiar with domestic violence.
Kambili explains what happened before this scene. She describes Papa’s fierce devotion to Catholic tradition and the priest at their church, St. Agnes, who is a white British man named Father Benedict. Father Benedict insists that prayers and recitations be done only in Latin, not in the native language of Igbo as they are at many Nigerian churches. In his sermons Father Benedict praises Papa extravagantly, describing his virtues as a righteous publisher of the newspaper the Standard. He says that Papa always prints the truth and speaks out for freedom even when it is difficult or dangerous. Papa is a wealthy business owner, but his money has not corrupted him like the other “Big Men.”
Much of the novel focuses on the character of Eugene Achike, or “Papa.” We first learn about his public life: he is a wealthy factory owner who speaks out for freedom through his newspaper and supports many people and causes with his money. Father Benedict is an example of the long history of British colonialism in Nigeria—Nigeria has been an independent nation for at least a decade by now, but the worldview that Western-equals-superior still pervades daily life, like the idea that praying in Igbo is inferior to praying in Latin.
During this praise Papa’s face remains emotionless, and Kambili remembers his decree that modesty is important, so she also tries to hide her pride. On this Palm Sunday Papa notices that Jaja did not take the communion. When they arrive home Papa slams his missal down on the dining room table and interrogates Jaja about it. Jaja answers rebelliously, saying that he doesn’t like the wafer, and that if refusing to take communion means death, then he will die. Kambili pleads with her eyes for him to stop, but Jaja won’t look at her.
We immediately see the kind of duality present in Papa’s life. In public he is the picture of virtue, not even letting himself feel proud when he is praised, while back at home he has a violent temper—but this too involves the idea of virtue, and punishment for sins. Adichie opens with Jaja’s rebellion, and later shows just how important it is. Kambili hints at the “language of the eyes” that she and Jaja share.
Papa then flings his missal at the étagère and breaks the small ceramic figurines of ballet dancers. Kambili’s mother, Beatrice (Mama), comes in and immediately starts picking up the pieces of the figurines. Kambili feels suffocated in the silence. Mama tells Papa to drink his tea and Jaja to help her clean up. Papa sits down. Usually he gives Kambili and Jaja a “love sip” of his tea before he drinks it—letting them share it, and Kambili likes this practice even though the tea always burns her tongue, because it proves Papa’s love for her—but today he does not, which disturbs Kambili.
Papa’s “love sip” is a good encapsulation of his relationship with his children: the tea burns their tongues and causes them pain, but it proves that Papa loves them. They idolize, obey, and love Papa despite his violent punishments. In fact, as Kambili’s narration indicates there is a sense in which she has been taught to love him for his violence, because he always explains his violent acts as being for the benefit of his children and wife, as teaching them the right way to act after they have done something wrong or sinful.
Jaja helps Mama pick up the pieces of the figurines, and Kambili feels like she is in a nightmare because everything is so different from how it usually is. She goes upstairs to change and looks out the window at Mama’s red hibiscuses, which she uses to decorate the church. Many visitors also pluck the flowers as they pass by. Kambili remembers two government agents who came to the house to try and bribe Papa, and even they couldn’t resist picking some hibiscus.
Adichie gives a few spare details to set the scene for later—Papa is an important enough man that the government tried to bribe him; Kambili finds some solace in natural beauty; and Jaja’s disobedience is new and unheard of in the house.
None of the usual Sunday routines take place: Mama doesn’t plait Kambili’s hair in the kitchen and Jaja doesn’t go upstairs to his room to read. Kambili tells Mama that she is sorry her figurines broke, but Mama just nods and shakes her head as if the figurines weren’t important to her. Kambili knows that they were, though—every time she heard Papa beating up Mama in their room, Mama would come downstairs and meticulously polish the figurines afterwards.
Adichie now reveals the importance of the figurines. Mama always polishes them after Papa beats her, and so they become a kind of euphemism for the domestic violence that Mama, Jaja, and Kambili never speak of. The breaking of the figurines, then, represents the beginning of the end of this violence.
The family sits down to lunch and Papa says a prayer over the food that lasts twenty minutes. He likes to refer to the Virgin Mary as “Shield of the Nigerian People,” a title he invented. Sisi, the family’s servant, brings in the food and they eat, though Kambili cannot taste anything because she is so stressed. Sisi brings in the new batch of cashew juice (which Papa will sell from his factories) and they each try it. Mama and Kambili both compliment it nervously.
Papa’s intense devotion to Catholicism is present in every aspect of life. Kambili narrates Papa’s twenty-minute prayer as if that were the usual custom before eating a meal—and in her family, it is. Everything Kambili and Mama do is done in silence and fear, trying to keep the peace.
Jaja is conspicuously silent, and Papa asks him if he has any “words in his mouth.” Papa says this in Igbo, which is a bad sign—Papa prefers everyone in the family to speak English, so as to “sound civilized.” Kambili remembers Papa’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, calling Papa a “colonial product.” Jaja responds that he has nothing to say, and he excuses himself from the table before Papa’s closing prayer. Kambili notices that the fear has left Jaja’s eyes and entered Papa’s. Papa calls for Jaja, starts to get up, and then slumps back into his chair. Kambili chokes on her cashew juice and has a coughing fit.
Papa is a “colonial product” because he has adopted the mindset of his missionary teachers—that everything Western is always superior, and that he must cut himself off from his roots to be a true Catholic or “civilized” man. Thus Papa always prefers speaking and hearing English over Igbo, because he sees English as the more civilized language. Later we will see the irony of this scene—that Jaja now uses silence as a weapon against Papa.
That evening Kambili stays in bed and doesn’t go to dinner. Papa sits with her a while, and she notices that his breathing is labored and his face has a rash on it. Mama brings her some soup, but after eating it Kambili throws it up. She asks about Jaja, and Mama says that he didn’t come down for dinner either. Kambili asks if Mama will replace the figurines, and Mama says that she won’t. Kambili starts to understand that everything has changed now, and Mama may not need the figurines anymore.
Kambili has recognized the symbolism of the figurines, and she now sees that their destruction coincides with a change in the family dynamic. Mama is not as afraid of violence anymore, and Jaja is willing to speak out against his father. Papa’s rash is a sinister prediction of his death by slow poisoning.
Mama leaves, and Kambili remembers what started all this change. There were many years when she and Jaja and Mama “spoke more with our spirits than with our lips,” but the true changes began when they visited Aunty Ifeoma in Nsukka. Kambili remembers Ifeoma’s garden of purple hibiscus, and the scent of freedom they seemed to give off. This was a different kind of freedom from the one Kambili had heard angry crowds chanting for—this was “a freedom to be, to do.”
Adichie briefly introduces the purple hibiscus as a symbol of freedom and independence, while also referencing the theme of silence and speech and bringing up Nigerian politics. We see everything in the novel through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old, so there is no thorough description of the political situation, but in this way Adichie more poignantly shows how corruption and violence affect even children.