Now, usually I would try to avoid the whole double-posting-one-day thing, but I just finished my twelfth cup of coffee for the evening and, conicidentally, was able to completely plow through Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail: A Novella, which I basically demolished in less than an hour. I should probably be wary of using too many ‘destroying’ verbs, however, because although I read it quickly, the book itself was a pure treat.
The book is about a young girl, Abigail, who is named for her mother, who dies during childbirth. Abigail comes from a Nigerian family, a highly patriarchal culture, and her father is completely distraught over his wifes death. His pain is made worse by the fact that Abigail looks just like her mother, causing her father to see only his dead wife in her. Abigail also suffers from bouts of insanity, spurred by her search for identity – she is compared to her mother so often by her father that she begins to loose sight of her own self, which she attempts to document by literally branding phrases, poetry, and memories of her mother on her skin. As a teenager, Abigail’s cousin Peter comes to take her to London, where he forces her in to a sort of home-based prostitution, in which he brings in paying customers to accost Abigail in her room at night. Although Abigail ends up getting her (rather fitting, albeit it rather disturbing) revenge, the pain she has to go through is almost incomprehensible. After the culminating incident with Peter, Abigail meets her social worker Derek (which is one of my favorite names EVER) and the two fall into a passionate but completely illicit affair, for which Derek is inevitably arrested. The ending of the book I won’t reveal, but let me just say that the plot of the book is remarkably touching for clocking in at under 150 pages.
Perhaps one of the greatest things about this book, however, is it’s style. Chris Abani is an amazing man, a published writer since the age of 16, imprisoned three times by the Nigerian state, sentenced to death once, who is an amazing novelist, poet, and social rights activist. He’s coming to give a lecture at my University in less than a week, and I can’t believe that I have been given the opportunity to have a special honors luncheon with a man who crafts beautiful, poignant work. I could write volumes and volumes if I had to, but I would rather just let the work speak for itself:
” Sometimes there is no way to leave something behind. Something over. We know this. We know this. We know this. This is the prevalence of ritual. The remember something that cannot be forgotten. Yet not left over. She knew this. As she smoked. She knew this. This. This. And what now?”
One of the best descriptions of rain I’ve ever read: “There was a time, it seemed to her, that she lived purely for the pleasure of rain. The way it would threaten the world gently, dropping dark clouds over the brightness of an afternoon, wind whipping trees in dark play. Then the smell; carried from afar, the lushness of wet, moisture-heavy eath, heralding the first cold stabs of water that seemed to just be practicing for the torrent that was about to come. And she, sitting on the dry safety of the veranda, wrapped in a sweater, watching the world weep as the Beatles in the background tinny and small in the soundscape, asked, Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”
A description of all the things I, too, love about London: “She would find out later that it was an old untidy sprawl of rivers and canals, beautiful parks, old cobbled streets that still held the echo of horse drawn carriages, tired crumbling walls built by Caesar, and modern plazas of glass and chrome. There was the open pleasure of Covent Garden with its flower shops, vegetable stalls, colorful barrow boy calls, the new market with with stall after stall selling trinkets that nobody needed to people who should know better. There were street musicians everywhere filling the hallowed halls of the Underground with their melancholic worship.”
“So much of love is memory.”
” ‘A human being alone is a thing more sad than any lost animal and nothing destroys the soul like aloneness.”
“Why did these people know nothing of this? Of the complexities of life and how you can never recapture the way a particular shaft of light, falling through a tree, patterned the floor in a shower of shadows. You just opened your heart because you knew tomorrow there would be another shaft of light, another tree, and another rain of shadows. Each particular. Not the same as yesterday’s. Not as beautiful as yesterday’s. Only as beautiful as today’s.”
“Destiny isn’t a deck of cards stacked up against you. It is the particular idiosyncrasies of the player, not the deck or the dealer, that hold the key. Personality always sways the outcome of the game.”
If these little tidbits haven’t made you want to read, I’m not sure there is much else I can do to convince you, other than to say that this is quite possibly one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I was able to finish it in under an hour. Take the time. Open the book. Be changed. Below is a video of Chris Abani giving a lecutre on African Narrative, and although it’s a long video, I urge you all to check it out because of just how amazing a public speaker Chris Abani is, and the great things he has to say about the way we view ourselves as human beings, and just how crucial language is to this view. Happy reading!