Customer Reviews: Graceland (Today Show Pick January 2005)
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on April 21, 2004
This book was quite a moving, magical experience for me. I was first drawn by just the cover (which is funny considering we're not supposed to judge books by covers yet I almost always am drawn to striking covers and then the contents). When I read the jacket, I thought of the recent Brazilian film CITY OF GODS. Well, I thought Chris Abani's book had far more humanity, and far more hope. The ending is sublime, and very emotional. The book is rather sprawling, detailing the life of young Elvis Okwe. His struggles to do the right thing are incredibly intense and heartbreaking. He really wants to be a good person, a good man, and its often things that are out of his hands that prevent him from doing that. All of the characters are well-drawn and unconventional, without ever being stereotypical, especially Elvis's father, who you think is just abusive and distant, but is really a tragic, complicated man, torn apart by the love of his country. GRACELAND encompasses many themes, but most importantly, it is about "redemption," not just for Elvis but for the country that Mr. Abani clearly loves. I loved this book and I hope it finds its audience.
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on September 6, 2005
Graceland is an enlightening yet very disturbing look into the poverty-stricken and corrupt nation of Nigeria. Although this book is a coming-of-age story, it also displays a culture besieged by American influence and internal discontent. Abani's choice to name the main character Elvis is particularly interesting since the reference to an American pop culture icon contrasts with the other metaphorical names like Redemption and Comfort. He is cloaked in a culture to which he doesn't truly belong and is alienated in a manner reminiscent of Ralph Ellison's nameless invisible man. Descriptions of the elaborate and vital kola nut ceremony are spaced throughout the book in a way that implies how deeply embedded such rituals are in Igbo people despite the background of American runoff; Nigeria has a society of multiple layers. Abani displays the curious intermingling of these two contrasting cultures very well.

The book was very well-written and the format made it particularly realistic. It is not chronologically organized, but the date preceding each section prevents confusion. This format, with excerpts from his mother's journal and descriptions of the kola nut ceremony mixed in, makes it easier to understand Elvis' perspective; details about his earlier life and Nigerian culture provide a context in which the story is set. The only problem I felt there was with the book was I felt Elvis could have been more emotionally developed. We see him undergo incredibly traumatic events (he has to deal with a drunken failure of a father and the memory of a mother who died of cancer when he was very young in the midst of intense poverty and the widespread crime that inevitably accompanies it), but it would have been interesting to read about the mental repercussions in more detail and perhaps with more nuance; his emotions seem a bit too straightforward. I felt myself more fascinated with the lesser characters because they are more dynamic and have greater depth. The aptly named Redemption is particularly interesting because he initally appears to be Elvis' downfall, but ultimately is his savior.
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on September 6, 2005
Chris Abani's Graceland is a compelling novel that chronicles the adolescence of a Nigerian Elvis impersonator left to fend for himself after his mother's death and his father's turn to alcoholism. The novel is set in post-colonial Lagos, Nigeria and provides a devastating look into the violence, corruption, and poverty of Africa's slums. But although it delves into the issue political tension, it is not solely focused on the local goings-on. Graceland is a story of human affliction at the hands of overbearing fathers, crooked governments, and western influence.

If you are looking for an uncomplicated and linear novel, then Graceland isn't for you. Its plot jumps back and forth from Elvis' childhood to his teen years. Although these sudden shifts may seem disconcerting, they ultimately help the reader understand Elvis on a deeper level. The stories of his past make up who he is in the present, giving the reader a fuller sense of his character. The point of view also shifts throughout the novel. While most of the story follows Elvis, some parts of it are instead of his father's point of view, or even his cousin Innocence's. These short dips into another character's life and experience show that Elvis is not the only victim of the circumstances in Nigeria. It would be easy to point a finger of blame at Sunday, Elvis' father, but glimpses into his life show that he too has been irreparably damaged. Although he seems like the cause of Elvis' pain, he is just another casualty of corruption. Every character suffers, and no one lives unscathed. Bits of culture are also thrown into the mix: throughout the book, one can find Nigerian recipes, medicinal uses for herbs and plants, and the procession of the kola nut ritual. These give the story color and character; they are little remnants of the authentic Nigerian culture that seems to be slipping away. To say that the book is too cluttered by these many story-lines is to miss the point. Graceland isn't only about Elvis just like it isn't only about Nigeria: every single piece of the novel contributes to the reader's holistic understanding of suffering and the struggle for salvation. All of the seemingly random threads of information somehow weave themselves together into a cohesive story.

Elvis seems to be on an endless quest for goodness. He strives to do what is morally right, even when those around him resort to violence and theft. Despite what he endures, Elvis has a sort of purity and innocence-he believes that his friends and family are essentially good, and each time they fail him, he is hurt. In Lagos, the concept of right versus wrong is loosely defined: the promise of a mediocre stipend is often enough to skew the balance of one's moral scale. Even Elvis finds himself-albeit reluctantly-involved in a world of drugs and slavery and employed by the corrupt Colonel. But in the end, it is Elvis' unfaltering conscience that renders him incapable of living in Lagos. He is born in Nigeria, but he never really belongs there; he doesn't have what it takes to partake in the day-to-day struggle for survival.

Your first response may be to want to save Elvis, his friends, his family, his father, Lagos, but it becomes clear that they ultimately don't need saving. Despite the many pressures they face-one after another militaristic government, western culture encroaching upon their own-they display stunning acts of bravery, unity, and loyalty to defend themselves.
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on August 24, 2005
If you've come this far in your trip to Graceland, take the next step. Buy it. Read it. Abani's story will not resemble the well-made novel - the plot jumps, holes abound, and the focus shifts, but you will be mesmerized, horrified, and provoked into laughter and even delight. If you've read Chris's poetry, you'll be grateful that his gift for concise and intense language is given full play, but the novel form allows him more room to work with structure, memory, and juxtaposition. Recipes and kola ceremony flow through the narrative, reminding us of another time, a "childhood" of ancestral wisdom and motherlore that has been all but beaten out of modern Nigeria. The story's events occur between 1973 and 1983, over twenty years ago. It feels contemporary but also quite dated: there's no mention of AIDS, for instance, and the war in Sudan is only beginning. One fears that a contemporary version of the story would seem worse, but that's like saying Oliver Twist is out of date. The forms of human misery change, but pain is timeless. What Elvis undergoes in Graceland is horrible by any standards.

The book is not just an exercise in suffering. Its high-life rhythm is almost danceable and the language begs to be sung or rapped with the right lilt and spin. The characters have fantastic names, exotic personalities, and metaphorical heft. The reader is always aware that Abani is working on several levels at once, exposing a real world, developing a complex character, cauterizing an enduring wound, mourning a lost past, and crafting a handbook for survival in the global village. The elements are familiar, the mix is new, important, and vital. Reading this book will expand your mind and delight your soul.
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on June 17, 2014
The main character: Elvis tries to make his way in Nigeria. He has been named after an American entertainer who he tries to imitate meanwhile he fights with his father, the failed politician Sunday, and has to cope with his father's new wife comfort. There is action as Elvis must flee what he knows after a shady deal comes apart.

The story bounces back and forth between the character's present and past and I really found it to be a page turner; and despite it being an assigned book I loved it! Well worth the read.
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on December 25, 2005
It's so refreshing to ready a story that takes place in present day Nigeria. Very well written with hidden gems such as traditional proverbs and receipes- i jumped for joy when I saw roast yam and palm oil. Mr Abani tackles diverse issues from incest to political unrest. I loved it
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on February 12, 2004
The great cover attracted my eye and Abani's engaging writing style drew me in from the first page. Abani brings us into an unknown world for most Americans: the slums of Lagos, Nigeria and introduces us to Elvis, a complex boy who impersonates his namesake as a profession.
Through the course of the novel, Elvis is shown different ways of living, by different characters: his friend Redemption, a man named King of the Beggars, and his father Sunday. His ultimate goal being to escape Lagos for Las Vegas, Elvis takes differnt paths winding up in jail at one point, and trafficing children as organ donors at another, the message being clear: there is no easy way out of the ghetto.
Abani brings to life distinct and amazing characters, from the grandmother who speaks with a Scottish accent, due to the people for whom she worked, to Elvis's mother a woman who remained strong for her son until the day she died.
This is an important book, not just for its literary contribution, but also in the fact that it highlights a part of the world and a difficult way of living that is absolutely foreign to Americans. America is shown as the bright lights of Vegas, the land of opportunity, the land from which John Wayne movies come, and the only way to escape.
His realistic characters and incredibe writing style prove him to be a new bright force in the literary world. Read this book, and then, read it again.
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on November 14, 2005
This book pierces into the heart, and affords a glimpse of, the organized, orchestrated confusion that was Nigeria at the tail end of the 20th century. As long as one is ignorant of the epic story Chris Abani attempts to deflesh into 320 spare pages, it is possible to critique it on superficial things such as character development, style of writing, etc., only.

Music is the background, the rhythm to which Nigeria pulsates. It has to be experienced to be understood. It is a unique, almost spiritual thing and entirely appropriate that the author does his best to capture it.

Who grew up in Nigeria and didn't have a friend like Redemption? Every neighborhood had it's own 'King of de Beggars' forever holding forth on history, sociology, politics, you name it. Reading Dostoevsky in the grimiest of slums with no running water or electricity and raw sewage snaking across the dirt roads is quintessentially Nigerian, that black hole of human potential.
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on February 7, 2005
Abani's novel was deeply disturbing as it was fascinating. The characters are richly drawn and by the book's end one feels well acquainted with them, especially Elvis. As a fellow African - I was born in South Africa - I found it very interesting to read about life in a different African country - a country that is not very favorably looked upon by other African countries.

I would recommend this - it's a compelling and refreshing story, it has humor and intense sadness, and it is very well written.
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on April 15, 2013
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.
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