Top critical review
Dark but powerful
on October 25, 2014
At its heart, Becoming Abigail is about an abused girl’s subconscious quest for individuality, independence, and love. What is unique about this version of a familiar story is Chris Abani’s poetic style, spare of prose and rich with imagery, evoking an almost supernatural sensibility in his exploration of Abigail’s character. The book successfully alternates between Abigail’s childhood in Nigeria and her adolescence in London.
Named for her mother, who died shortly after her birth, Abigail grows to adolescence in the care of her terminally depressed father and in the shadow of her deceased mother. Her father expects her to become like her mother in behavior and appearance. Abigail rebels against his refusal to connect with her. Nevertheless, she is torn between trying to be an individual and trying to become the “other” Abigail, her mother.
Her association with this other Abigail lends her a strength of resolve unusual in one so young. She doesn’t seem affected when her cousin rapes her at the age of ten, nor does she react when her cousin’s husband, Peter, molests her at his wedding. Later her father commits suicide and Abigail is sent to live with Peter and his wife, Mary. Peter forces a teenage Abigail into prostitution.
At this point we think we’ve read stories like this before, but in a turnaround of superhuman proportions, the victim becomes the aggressor as Abigail turns on Peter, leaving him presumably to bleed to death. Deranged and distressed, Abigail is picked up by social workers and takes to Derek, an older white man who doesn’t objectify or condescend her, but treats her as an intelligent human being. The book ends on a rather ambiguous note, leaving the reader unsure as to her next action. For someone as alive, as spirited as Abigail, her indecisiveness is troubling. Has she finally given up?
Other questions remain unanswered as well. Abigail’s rape at the age of ten by cousin Edwin is brought up once and never mentioned again, nor is Abigail’s psychology deconstructed during this incident. Abigail and Mary’s relationship is reintroduced in the present time, but the problems between them—Mary’s betrayal, Peter’s grisly demise—are unresolved. Abigail’s relationship with her social worker was a little troubling. She may well believe that she “chose” this man as her lover, but I view it as a psychological recourse. After enduring so much abuse at the hands of people she trusted, it’s unsurprising Abigail would develop feeling for an older man who was kind to her and in a position of power over her.
A few sequences were a little vaguely presented, such as the scene in which Molly discovers Derek and Abigail. I’m still not sure who, if anyone, was stabbed, or what was the source of the blood on Mary’s nightgown. More description of life in Nigeria would not have been remiss either, to paint a clearer picture of Abigail’s childhood and show the cultural differences of her life there. But the book is beautifully written, a unique portrayal of a girl’s unhappy life presented in words that blur the line between real and surreal. Abani’s heroine is a pillar of strength, carrying her burdens nobly and with astonishing pride.