Fifteen year old Kambili and her older brother, Jaja, live a good life in Enugu, Nigeria. Their father, Eugene, is a big man, meaning wealthy and well-connected, so they enjoy privileges that their classmates and friends do not. But because their father is a big man, no one suspects that he rules his family with an iron fist in the name of religion. So strict in his faith is Eugene, that has renounced his own father, who has not converted to Catholicism, and limits the children's time with him to 15 minutes during the Christmas holiday.
It's not until Kambili and Jaja get to visit their Aunt Ifeoma and cousins that they learn that everyone does not live by a daily schedule. Every aspect of their lives, from the time they wake up until they go to bed is dictated by schedules their father has created for them. In Aunt Ifeoma's house, children are encouraged to have a voice and actually use it. At home, speaking out of turn or acting independently without guidance from their father is a cause for immediate disciplinary action. In Aunt Ifeoma's home, there is laughter and open emotion, things that have been stifled in Kambili and Jaja's home.
At one point, Eugene boasts that his Kambili and Jaja are “not like those loud children people are raising these days, with no home training and no fear of God;” to which Ade Coker replies: “Imagine what the standard would be if we were all quiet.” This conversation really hit on so many things for me. The children and their mother's silence has enabled Eugene to keep them living in constant fear of his punishment, should one of them step out of line. The voices of the students and faculty at the university where Aunty Ifeoma teaches have been raised, resulting in a military coup and the persecution of those that have spoken up.
Forced to leave Nigeria as a result of the coup, Aunty Ifeoma moves to the United States to teach. Though her daughter, Amaka, always saw the U.S. as the promised land, she soon begins to believe that though times were sometimes hard in Nigeria, there was a freer sense of self and others there than in her new home.
“There has never been a power outage and hot water runs from a tap, but we don’t laugh anymore . . . because we no longer have the time to laugh, because we don’t even see one another.”
By the end of this book, I was drained. While I was hoping for a happy ending, instead I got a,, "okay, this is life, make the best of it" ending. And I'm okay with that. I just wanted better for characters that I became deeply invested in during the course of my listening.
Listening time: 11 hours
Published: October 2003