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Chris Abani: Graceland

This book is a sort of male version of Buchi Emecheta‘s The Joys of Motherhood. Like that book, the hero is an Igbo who ends up in Lagos, where he has all sorts of problems, at least in part caused by the political, economic and social system and at least part of the point of the book is to expose said political, economic and social system, which works to the detriment of the poor and to the benefit of those in power. Of course, there are many differences between the novels.

Elvis Oke is a young man – he is sixteen in 1983 when much of this book takes place, not unlike his creator – whose story is told in jumps between the present of 1983 and his early life in Igbo territory. His early life passed peacefully enough. His father, Sunday, was a tax inspector. He was very close to his grandmother, who speaks with a Scottish accent. Then his mother died of cancer. When democracy briefly appeared in Nigeria, his father ran for political office but, as he had little money, his rivals were able to bribe voters to vote for them and he lost. The death of his wife and his electoral loss cause Sunday to go off the rails. Sunday and Elvis move to Lagos where Sunday moves in with Comfort, who has three children from a previous relationship. Elvis hates his stepmother but this is more because of her neglect of the children rather than any outward cruelty. Sunday takes to drinking and sponges off his wife and son. At the start of the novel, Elvis has effectively dropped out of school and is looking to make a career in dancing. Indeed, he spends lot of time dancing to 1950s American music, including, of course, Elvis Presley.

The novel is, to a great extent, about Elvis growing up. We see him go through a male initiation ritual when young. However, the focus is on 1983 and the troubles Elvis, his family and the country face. Elvis tries to hustle money from tourists with his dancing but is not very successful. Unfortunately, he is also lazy, so while he does manage to get a job on a construction site, he loses it for arriving late to work. He becomes friends with two people. The first is Redemption, a young man a bit older than him, who finds work for him, most of which is illegal. Much of this work is for the Colonel, who seems to be Nigeria’s head of security and who is vicious and cruel. The work Elvis and Redemption do ranges from drugs to delivering both body parts and live humans for involuntary organ donation. All too often these schemes go wrong.

His other friend is known as the King of the Beggars. He is a former soldier in the Biafra war (on the Biafran side), who saw his family and others executed by a vicious soldier, and has been seeking this soldier ever since (and, of course, finally finds him). The King is a beggar but he is also a musician and a leader. When Elvis needs to get away from Lagos he goes on tour with the King’s band. When the final confrontation takes place between the military and the people, it is the King who leads the people.

Much of the novel shows how, at least in Lagos, the entire system is totally corrupt and totally against the interests of the people, from body harvesting, random arrests, torture and killing to the need to pay bribes for everything and a police force interested only in getting such bribes. Many of the key characters end up dead and Abani makes it clear that survival for the poor in Nigeria is increasingly difficult. He tells his tale well – Elvis is, no doubt, based on himself, at least in part – and Elvis does survive, a wiser man.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux