Kambili Achike, the narrator, is a fifteen-year-old girl living in Enugu, Nigeria with her father, Eugene (Papa), mother, Beatrice (Mama), and older brother, Chukwuku (Jaja). The novel begins on Palm Sunday. Jaja refuses to receive communion at church, and Papa throws his missal, breaking Mama’s beloved figurines. Kambili then explains the events leading up to this scene.
Papa, a wealthy factory owner, is an active philanthropist in public and an upstanding Catholic, but at home is a strict and violent authoritarian. He publishes a newspaper, the Standard, which is the only paper willing to criticize the new Nigerian Head of State.
Mama gets pregnant. After Mass one day the family visits Father Benedict, their white priest. Mama feels sick and doesn’t want to leave the car. When they return home Papa beats Mama until she has a miscarriage. Later Kambili takes her exams and comes second in her class, disappointing Papa.
At Christmas the family goes to their home village of Abba. Papa’s father, Papa-Nnukwu, lives there, but Papa doesn’t speak to him because his father sticks to his traditional religion and won’t become Catholic. Kambili and Jaja visit Papa-Nnukwu briefly. Aunty Ifeoma, Papa’s widowed sister and a university professor, arrives in Abba as well. She seems fearless and willing to criticize both Papa and the government. Her children—Amaka, Obiora, and Chima—are precocious and outspoken.
Ifeoma takes Jaja and Kambili to an Igbo festival. On Christmas Papa feeds the whole village. The next day Papa catches Kambili breaking the “Eucharist fast” as she eats some food along with a painkiller she needs to take for menstrual cramps, and he beats her, Jaja, and Mama. Ifeoma convinces Papa to let Jaja and Kambili visit her in Nsukka.
Kambili and Jaja arrive and are surprised by Ifeoma’s poverty, but also the constant laughter in her house. Jaja is fascinated by the purple hibiscuses in Ifeoma’s garden. Father Amadi, a young, handsome Nigerian priest, comes to dinner.
As the days progress Jaja opens up, though Kambili remains silent and confused. Ifeoma hears that Papa-Nnukwu is sick, and she fetches him from Abba. Amaka starts painting a picture of him. Father Amadi visits often, and Kambili finds herself attracted to him. One morning Kambili observes Papa-Nnukwu’s morning ritual, which is similar to Catholic confession.
Father Amadi takes Kambili to the local stadium. He makes her chase after him and tries to get her to talk. Kambili is confused by her feelings and his “unpriestly” demeanor. Papa finds out that Papa-Nnukwu is staying in the house.
The next morning the family discover that Papa-Nnukwu has died in his sleep. Papa takes Jaja and Kambili back to Enugu, and Amaka gives Kambili her painting. Papa punishes Jaja and Kambili for not telling him they were staying in the same apartment as their grandfather, a pagan, by pouring boiling water on their feet. Papa and his editor, Ade Coker, decide to run a controversial story in the Standard. Soon after, Ade Coker is assassinated with a package bomb.
One day Kambili and Jaja are looking at the painting of Papa-Nnukwu when Papa comes in. He beats Kambili severely, and she wakes up in the hospital. Papa agrees to let Jaja and Kambili return to Nsukka.
Ifeoma worries about losing her job for speaking out against the “sole administrator” appointed by the government. The university closes after a student riot. Men ransack Ifeoma’s flat, trying to intimidate her. Kambili falls more deeply in love with Father Amadi, who seems attracted to her.
Mama arrives one day after being beaten into another miscarriage. Papa takes his family home, and the next day is the Palm Sunday on which the novel begins, when Jaja stands up to Papa.
After Palm Sunday there is less fear and silence in the house. Ifeoma calls to say that she has been fired and is moving to America. Jaja and Kambili return to Nsukka. Ifeoma takes them on a pilgrimage to Aokpe, where Kambili sees visions of the Virgin Mary and reaffirms her faith. Father Amadi leaves to do missionary work, and Kambili weeps and confesses her love to him. Ifeoma gets a visa and prepares to leave Nigeria.
Papa is found dead at his desk, and they all go to Enugu. When Papa’s autopsy is complete, Mama says that she poisoned him. The police arrive and Jaja takes responsibility for the crime.
Three years later, Kambili and Mama visit Jaja in prison to tell him he will be released soon. Mama has grown withdrawn and rarely speaks. After the visit, Kambili feels hopeful about the future.