Post Road Magazine #28

Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani (Akashic Books)

Laura K. Warrell

A young Nigerian woman sits on an embankment of the River Thames smoking cigarettes as she prepares for a fateful jump. Gazing across the water where she imagines "the ghosts of those who had also ended it here," the young woman recalls the men she has slept with for money and the way she wrote "me" on her breasts to reclaim her body afterward. She also tries to recall her mother's funeral though the memory remains unclear no matter how intently she attempts to piece it together.

So begins Becoming Abigail, a coming-of-age story about a strong-willed girl struggling to transcend unfathomable hardship. The titular character of Chris Abani's 2006 novella has been forced into prostitution by her family, a fact that counts for only one of the harrowing events in a lifetime of brutalities. Becoming Abigail is a devastating read, but one that ultimately reveals the dignity and courage inhabiting even the most ravaged of human spirits.

Abani, whose 2005 debut Graceland won the Hemingway/PEN Award among other honors, seems to enjoy playing with literary convention, in particular the structure of time. In Becoming Abigail, chapters titled "Now" find the character contemplating life as a London prostitute whose only happiness is an affair with a social worker. Chapters titled "Then" tell the story of how she arrived at this decisive moment by the Thames, including her mother's death, her visits with psychiatrists and witches to diagnose her rebellious behavior, and the sexual violence perpetrated by her cousin who eventually facilitates her move from Nigeria. The book goes back and forth between these "Now" and "Then" chapters, a movement that reflects how our internal lives rarely progress in a linear fashion but rather loop in cycles as the past and present continuously affect each other. Meanwhile, the extreme interiority of the narrative reflects Abigail's isolation, which works to give the book an intensity and intimacy rarely found in contemporary fiction.

But perhaps Becoming Abigail is so engaging because it reads much like an extended prose poem. Abani is also an award-winning poet, and he creates a world for Abigail where the moon is "tired" and sunlight is "lazy," where traffic does not simply go by but "winks past." Abigail's father is "a tall whip of blackness like an undecided but upright cobra" while the jazz music the old man listens to when he drinks too much "was something you find down a dark alley taken as a shortcut, and brushing rain from your hair in the dimness of the club found there, you hear the singer crying just for you." The lyricism of Abani's prose is as musical-and the imagery as vibrant-as anything one might find in a Toni Morrison novel, which makes Abani one of those rare authors whose skills as a poet and storyteller combine to make extraordinary fiction.

Abani once told The Rumpus that Becoming Abigail is "a love letter to my inability to see women for everything they are and offer." Indeed, the care with which he tells the story of this young woman "caught in the sheath of men's plans" feels like an act of love, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. Justice does not necessarily win out in Abigail's story, and her final act of self-recovery and empowerment may not rest well with all readers. Becoming Abigail reminds us that not every human story has a happy end, but in telling those stories we find their power and grace.

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