three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
11-July-Aug-2004
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-GracelandSixteen-year-old Elvis Oke tries to make a living on the Lagos streets by mimicking his swivel-hipped American namesake. In whiteface make-up and a pompadour wig, he shills for the pocket change of "bored white tourists" at the city’s resorts. Burdened with an alcoholic father, the memory of his dead mother, and the grim poverty of his ghetto home, Elvis’s dreams of fame in America seem implausible. When his desire to escape draws him into the criminal world of his friend Redemption, only the counsel of the King of the Beggars, an indigent playwright cum political activist, provides him with much-needed perspective.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 324 pages. $24.

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Like a cross between Mabel De Sweet Honey and Letters to a Young Poet, Abani’s GraceLand is both a poetic mediation on urban decay and a coming of age picaresque. " Melvin Jules Bukiet

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"In depicting how deeply external politics can affect internal thinking, GraceLand announces itself as a worthy heir to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Like that classic of Nigerian literature, it gives a multifaceted human face to a culture struggling to find its own identity while living with somebody else’s." Mark Athitakis

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Elvis Oke] is the ambivalent hero of an itchy, organic novel that strikes close to home despite a terrain that might be alien to most American readers. This book gets under your skin by suggesting that cross-cultural pollination has its price." Carlo Wolff

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Abani remains a fluid, closely observant writer who doesn’t let [GraceLand’s] counterpoint narrative get swamped by facile nostalgia for a simpler village life. … And in Elvis himself, Abani has vividly captured a character’s struggle to come into a manhood that no longer exists in any of the worlds he is trying to grow into: caught in a trap, you might even say." Chris Lehmann

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As a convincing and unpatronizing record of life in a poor Nigerian slum, and as a frighteningly honest insight into a world skewed by casual violence, it’s wonderful. … [But the] horrors [of that life] are never really assimilated into the book’s imaginative structure, and the author’s interest in showing us his little-written-about world pulls GraceLand persistently in the direction of nonfiction." Sophie Harrison

Critical Summary

Abani, a Nigerian novelist and poet, published his first novel at age 16. He was subsequently imprisoned under accusations that it inspired a political coup. Critics agree that his writing has lost none of its power to evoke strong emotions. GraceLand is a humorous, moving, and dark exploration of the costs of cultural colonialism. Reviewers uniformly praise Abani’s vivid descriptions of Lagos, his "perfectly drawn adolescent" (Minneapolis Star Tribune), as well as the humor, compassion, and social consciousness that run throughout the novel. Some reviews find fault with Abani’s narrative devices, which include flashbacks and family recipes, but generally agree these don’t overwhelm the novel’s larger message: that for much of the world, America remains but a glittering dream.