GRACELAND

Christopher Abani, Author . Farrar, Straus & Giroux $24 (321p) ISBN 978-0-374-16589-5

Abani's debut novel offers a searing chronicle of a young man's coming of age in Nigeria during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The vulnerable, wide-eyed protagonist is Elvis Oke, a young Nigerian with a penchant for dancing and impersonating the American rock-and-roll singer he is named after. The story alternates between Elvis's early years in the 1970s, when his mother dies of cancer and leaves him with a disapproving father, and his life as a teenager in the Lago ghetto, a place one character calls "a pus-ridden eyesore on de face of de nation's capital." Relating how an innocent child grows into a hardened young man, the novel also gives a glimpse into a world foreign to most readers—a brutal Third World country permeated by the excesses and wonders of American popular culture. Sprinkled throughout the book are recipes and entries from Elvis's mother's journal, as well as descriptions of the kola nut ceremony through which an Igbo boy becomes a man. These sections at first seem showy and tacked on, but by the end of the book their significance becomes clearer. The book is most powerful when it refrains from polemic and didacticism and simply follows its protagonist on his daily journey through the violent, harsh Nigerian landscape. Elvis must also negotiate troubles closer to home, including a drunk and ruined father and friends who cannot always be trusted. In this book, names are destiny, "selected with care by your family and given to you as a talisman." One of Elvis's friends is named Redemption, but in the end it is Elvis who claims this moniker, both literally and symbolically. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 11/17/2003
Release date: 02/01/2004
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-312-42528-9
Paperback - 336 pages - 978-0-312-42311-7
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