I just finished Graceland
by Chris Abani, and I must say I was sorely disappointed. The weird thing is that it was actually a pretty good book. It reminded me a lot of The Kite Runner, which I loved. The main character was likable and sympathetic. The book was intense and never boring, with a number of shocking and unexpected scenes. The young Nigerian author definitely shows a lot of promise. I think my hopes may have mounted too high when the teaser on the back cover told me it was "the story of Elvis, a teenage Elvis impersonator hoping to make his way out of the ghetto [of Lagos, Nigeria].
" When I saw that, I knew I had to read it, thinking, "how could this not be fantastic?"
Elvis is a teenager whose mother succumbed to cancer when he was young. His father, Sunday, decides to move them from the village to Lagos, in search of better job prospects. Young Elvis is forced to leave behind his beloved grandmother and Aunt Felicia and confidante and cousin, Efua. In
Lagos, life unravels for Elvis and Sunday. Sunday cannot find work, shacks up with a woman with three children and turns to drink to drown his sorrows. Elvis does not go to school and works odd jobs to support his family, singing and dancing on the beach as an Elvis Presley impersonator. He realizes he is not making enough money doing this, and under the influence of his friend, Redemption, he turns to more illicit financial prospects. Unsurprisingly, he lands in a world of trouble and hurt. Finally, *spoiler alert*
he obtains a passport and decides to start afresh in America. Throughout the story, Elvis maintains a strong connection to his mother by carrying her journal of recipes and plant descriptions everywhere with him. Abani intersperses the scenes of urban disfunction with snippets from the journal as well as memories of Elvis' mother and village. The whole story is set to the backdrop of political malfunction and slum life in Nigeria.
Like I said it was definitely a good book. Maybe I've just read too many depressing books about the "state of things in Africa," where politics and poverty are the center of everyone's lives. I've lived in an African country for three years now, and I can tell you, those are not the only things people think about and concentrate on. It's not only bad things and poor people one sees here. I know that these books that "expose" dictatorships, nepotism and poverty are extremely important for raising awareness and fixing the problem. But why do ALL the books about African countries have to be about these things? There are so many good things that happen in Burkina every single day. Where are all the books about this side of life in African countries?*Second spoiler alert*
I also have an issue with the fact that Elvis' salvation is leaving for America. Even Abani admits at the end of the story: "Even though it had become painfully clear to him that there was no way he could survive in Lagos, there was no guarantee that he would survive in America" (pg 318). However, Redemption convinces him to leave by telling him that America is better, and he is not met for the rough and tumble life of Lagos. "It wasn't like he couldn't make it in Lagos. Plenty of people did it every day and they lived full and happy lives. But Redemption had been right: not him" (pg 318). What about the ghettos of New York or L.A.? What happens when he finds it difficult to find a job as an uneducated immigrant in the United States, and it's the rough crowd that's making quick cash? Especially when his fall-back dream is dancing, a very difficult profession to land a lucrative job. Since he has fallen in with this crowd before to take the easy way out, who's to say he won't again?
In any case, the book leaves you feeling depressed about Africa and not-so-hopeful about Elvis's future. A disappointing conclusion to a book that started with so much promise!