By Chris Abani.
Akashic Books, $11.95.
Abigail, the protagonist of Abani’s brief, claustrophobic novella, shares a name with her mother, who died during her childbirth. Raised by a depressive, drunken father in Nigeria, Abigail remembers things she couldn’t possibly have witnessed: her mother’s grace, her father’s happiness.
The narrative skips in time between Abigail’s youth in Nigeria and her adolescence in London. Her cousin Mary’s husband, Peter, comes to Nigeria and brings Abigail back to live with the two of them. Once there, in a new world intended to offer her opportunity where Nigeria offered only repression, Peter abuses her mercilessly, until she is able to escape into the hands of a social worker, Derek. Derek initiates a sexual affair with Abigail, still only 15 years old, that is sadly the most loving relationship of her young life.
The structure of Abigail makes for a slow burn. We see Abigail as both a frightened young girl and a scarred, isolated woman. The abuse she suffers is brutal, though it’s impressive how skillfully Abani avoids defining her through what’s been done to her. Abigail is a character who acts, who makes choices and, occasionally, throws punches. It’s to the author’s credit that in such a small space he has drawn a character who rises off the page as more than just a victim. Abani himself knows the dangers of abuse, having been imprisoned at 18 in Nigeria for allegedly masterminding a politcal coup.
Abani writes in a fearless prose, filled with the type of clipped and perfunctory sentences that deliver information (“The cigarette burnt her finger as it smoked down to the filter”) and profundity (“She had felt caught in the sheath of men’s plans”) in the same muted breath.
This is a book about abuse without recovery, the kind of story that demands an honesty in its handling to avoid overplaying the gruesome scenes. Abani is able to toe that line between restraint and abundance, unfolding Abigail’s history like the raising of a bandage.—Jonathan Messinger
Abani reads Tue 4 at Barbara’s Bookstore, and Wed 5 and Thu 6 at Northwestern.