Becoming Abigail Paperback – Mar 1 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Abani follows up GraceLand, his PEN/Faulkner Award–winning boy's coming-of-age novel, with a searing girl's coming-of-age novella in which a troubled Nigerian teen is threatened with becoming human trade. Abigail's mother died giving birth to her, leaving her, as she grows, with a crippling guilt that drives her to bizarre childhood mourning rituals and, later, with the responsibility of caring for her chronically depressed father. Repeated sexual violations by male relatives and the self-imposed expectation that she live up to her idealized image of her mother create unbearable pain and contradiction. When, at the halfway point of the book, Abigail's father sends her, at age 15 , to live with her cousin-by-marriage, Peter, in London, it's as much to free her from him as to give her more opportunities. But once she arrives, her "cousin" proves malevolent, and her dehumanization begins. Recalling Lucas Moodyson's crushing Lilya4Ever, this portrait of a brutalized girl given no control over her life or body, features Abani's lyrical prose (Abigail's father's armchair "smelled of the dreams of everyone who had sat in it") and deft moves between short chapters titled "Then" and "Now"—with the latter offering little promise. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Spare, haunting vignettes of exquisite delicacy tell of horrifying sexual brutality suffered by a young Nigerian girl and of her heartfelt anguish, alternating between "Now" in London, where her relatives try to force her into prostitution, and "Then" back in Ibadan, where her mother dies while giving birth to her. Abigail keeps trying to live up to the brave, independent activist mother, who was a judge at 35, and to make it up to her heartbroken dad for the loss of his wife. Raped by her cousin at age 10, she burns and cuts herself; then things get much worse. She fights back, and her punishment is appalling. Never sensationalized, the continual revelations are more shocking for being quietly told, compressed into taut moments that reveal secrets of cruelty--and of love--up to the last page. A prize-winning writer for Graceland (2003), Abani tells a strong young woman's story with graphic empathy. Hazel Rochman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The prose style is sparse, for example (from chapter 31): "The comfort of simple things. Coffee percolating. Cinnamon buns warming oven and home. An ice cold Coca-Cola on a hot day, Licking out the mixing bowl. Chocolate. Childhood... And what would be the line for her?... A line is a lie. Who can tell what it will open unto." And in this unpredictable strong novella, who can tell indeed? Abani's style here is fearless (you can read how he has distilled his prose from Graceland to Becoming Abigail) and its rhythm ranges from a paused, minimalist riff, to a painful staccato, to the intensity of a fluid jazz solo.
This is a fast read that will singe your brain. Abani gives the reader no easy answers, as indeed no good artist should. He raises questions.
Through this beautifully told story, in the vein of films like Moodysson's Lilya4ever, calls our attention to one of the world's most overwhelming exploitative practices: the sexual slavery of women and children, not only in Nigeria/Britain but everywhere.
Short, painful (almost masochistic to read, nearly like self flagellating), raw and honest.
You will be glad to get to the end of the book but you won't dare skip a page in the process.
Abigail's story couldn't have been told in any other or possibly better form or manner. Chris Abani is such a mature, heavily talented writer and he manipulates and owns his language.
This is my second read of his works and I will keep on reading him. He speaks for the underdogs who have no voice, no easy feat.
Chris Abani makes me proud to be Nigerian and Ibo and reminds me of the possibilities.
However, in my opinion, the prose is taught and shows a great deal of restraint. It would be too easy to sensationalize and glorify the horrors depicted, as is what we are used to in current films, graphic novels, fiction, etc. If anything, the prose is executed in a poetic way, which distills and softens the gravity of the events being described. This book is not light fare.
This tiny book attempts to do in a very small space, what many books five times its size so often cannot achieve. It tells a harrowing story of a life lived, that was not truly alive, almost an account of a ghostlike way of being. Abigail, this Abigail never had a chance.
I also am grateful to the author for the size of this material, I am not sure I could have handled much more suffering.
It is not perfect, but damn it is noteworthy and good.
Thanks for reading.
Named for her mother, who died shortly after her birth, Abigail grows to adolescence in the care of her terminally depressed father and in the shadow of her deceased mother. Her father expects her to become like her mother in behavior and appearance. Abigail rebels against his refusal to connect with her. Nevertheless, she is torn between trying to be an individual and trying to become the “other” Abigail, her mother.
Her association with this other Abigail lends her a strength of resolve unusual in one so young. She doesn’t seem affected when her cousin rapes her at the age of ten, nor does she react when her cousin’s husband, Peter, molests her at his wedding. Later her father commits suicide and Abigail is sent to live with Peter and his wife, Mary. Peter forces a teenage Abigail into prostitution.
At this point we think we’ve read stories like this before, but in a turnaround of superhuman proportions, the victim becomes the aggressor as Abigail turns on Peter, leaving him presumably to bleed to death. Deranged and distressed, Abigail is picked up by social workers and takes to Derek, an older white man who doesn’t objectify or condescend her, but treats her as an intelligent human being. The book ends on a rather ambiguous note, leaving the reader unsure as to her next action. For someone as alive, as spirited as Abigail, her indecisiveness is troubling. Has she finally given up?
Other questions remain unanswered as well. Abigail’s rape at the age of ten by cousin Edwin is brought up once and never mentioned again, nor is Abigail’s psychology deconstructed during this incident. Abigail and Mary’s relationship is reintroduced in the present time, but the problems between them—Mary’s betrayal, Peter’s grisly demise—are unresolved. Abigail’s relationship with her social worker was a little troubling. She may well believe that she “chose” this man as her lover, but I view it as a psychological recourse. After enduring so much abuse at the hands of people she trusted, it’s unsurprising Abigail would develop feeling for an older man who was kind to her and in a position of power over her.
A few sequences were a little vaguely presented, such as the scene in which Molly discovers Derek and Abigail. I’m still not sure who, if anyone, was stabbed, or what was the source of the blood on Mary’s nightgown. More description of life in Nigeria would not have been remiss either, to paint a clearer picture of Abigail’s childhood and show the cultural differences of her life there. But the book is beautifully written, a unique portrayal of a girl’s unhappy life presented in words that blur the line between real and surreal. Abani’s heroine is a pillar of strength, carrying her burdens nobly and with astonishing pride.