Chris Abani’s GraceLand is the story of sixteen-year-old Elvis, a Nigerian teenager living in Lagos in 1983 who wants nothing more than to be an Elvis Presley impersonator. That summary alone is what got me to pick up Abani’s novel, but what is even more impressive than Elvis’s characterization is the cultural and worldly scope in which Abani crafts Elvis’s story. While the novel maintains a close third-person perspective on Elvis, Abani uses an omniscient narrative voice that can sneak its way into the minds of even the most peripheral characters. In this way, Abani tells the story of a country through the story of one of its children; even though his hopes and dreams may be out of the ordinary, they are – at their basest level – the hopes and dreams of a country.
The non-chronological story telling method Abani utilizes functions as a spiral. I like to picture a conch shell while thinking of the novel now, the winding walls becoming narrower and narrower as the story closes in on itself. The dramatic presence takes place in Lagos in 1983, after Elvis and his estranged father, Sunday, have moved from their small village into Maroko, a Lagos slum. Every alternating chapter brings us back into the past, starting with Elvis as a five-year-old little boy and moving all the way up to his present so that both times eventually meet, in an almost seamless fashion. Within these time shifts, Abani also includes excerpts from Elvis’s mother’s diary – recipes for traditional Nigerian dishes and identifications of different plants and roots that can be used to cure maladies. Along with these recipes is the history of the kola nut ritual, an ancient tradition rite that allows a family to see what kind of adults their children will become. By including both familial artifacts and cultural lore, Abani widens the scope of Elvis’s story so much so that Nigeria becomes more of the protagonist, rather than Elvis.
The wide cast of characters surrounding Elvis is a strong showing of both characterization and storytelling. The two most memorable are Sunday, and Elvis’s close friend, Redemption. Abani could have created Sunday in the clichéd vein of abusive fathers, but he does not; rather, Abani gives Sunday humanity, and in doing so, makes him all the more tragic. There is a quiet scene where Elvis realizes he has called Sunday “Dad” for the first time. This recognition is heartbreaking in both Elvis’s realization of this fact and in his father’s resignation to his failure as a parent. The end to Sunday’s story, then, carries even more weight than it would have without that small, little scene.
Redemption is a firecracker of a character, bringing energy into every scene he occupies. He is akin to those characters in movies or on certain television shows that, even though they may not be main characters, take over every scene that they are in. He is the force that pushes Elvis into new and dangerous situations, and he is also one of the only characters that never truly leaves Elvis behind. He is a stunning creation, and I greatly admire Abani’s drawing of him as a character.
I have two complaints regarding GraceLand. One is where the female characters are concerned. While Elvis is surrounded by strong women in his past – his mother, his grandmother, and his aunt, among others – they disappear as his journey progresses. I felt a bit cheated, like the male characters were more developed and the female characters functioned as sources of tragedy or of frustration. I would have liked to see Abani do more with them. The other complaint I have is the novel’s length. While it is a sweeping, dramatic story, I truly believe Abani could have told just as powerful a story in a novel that has a hundred less pages.
GraceLand is original, emotional, and visceral. It is a portrayal of a boy forced to grow up too fast, and of a country forced into turmoil, violence, and hope.