The story opens with aggression - Papa throwing a book across a room and smashing Mama's figurines, the importance of which will become apparent later. This reaction to his son Jaja's disobedience throws the reader straight into the claustrophobic, violent family life of Kambili, our narrator, and Jaja's younger sister.
They are both intelligent, high-achieving teens, but their father demands perfection and they are punished if they ever fall below his impossibly high standards. He minutely controls their lives, keeping them on strict schedules which exclude them from their peers. He also enforces separation from his own father who he sees as a heathen for not following the same religious practices. Papa's fierce dominance is in stark contrast to the image he portrays outside the family, where he is highly respected. Despite the obvious negative impact the oppressive atmosphere at home has had on Kambili, she takes pride in others' good opinion of her Papa.
There are some haunting scenes of domestic violence - Papa carrying Mama down a flight of stairs, dripping blood after he has beaten her to the point of miscarriage. The image of Kambili and Jaja cleaning her blood is poignant, and one that will stay with both Kambili and the reader. The children do not avoid the physical abuse - on discovering that they have spent time with their grandfather without his permission he pours boiling water on their feet. It is in this moment, amid the horror of his actions, that we are given a glimpse into his motives. He reveals that similar was done to him as punishment in his youth. This continuation of abuse combined with his moral absolutism adds to the sense of hopelessness.
Their Papa reluctantly allows his children to stay with his sister, Aunty Ifeoma, in the University town of Nsukka, and this proves to be something of a turning point for their family. Not only does the experience show them that family life does not have to be so restrictive but opens their eyes to the suffering that they have been protected from. Nsukka is something of a microcosm of Nigeria, a single powerful figure whose actions lead to the suffering of the people as jobs are lost and resources are scarce.
Witnessing this first-hand allows Kambili and Jaja to mature as their understanding grows. This, combined with the freedom to flourish and express their own opinions, enables them to begin to form their own identities. This is both heartening and distressing for the reader as it is clear independent thought will never be agreeable to their Papa.
By this point the reader is desperate for Kambili, Jaja, and Mama to find a way out, while despairing at the seeming impossibility of this. The conclusion suggests that escaping their Papa’s influence will be even harder than imagined and can leave you feeling a little bleak.
A well written, evocative novel that easily draws the reader into the world of the characters, feeling their frustrations and fears.