When is a book not a book? When is a poem a story? When do words jump off the page, grab you by the throat, slap you around, soothe you down, and do it all over again, with the frantic, sensitive, felt power of music? One instance is in the slim novella Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani (Akashic Press). At once enraging and engaging, Abani's book submerges the reader in a tragic character one would never want to be, Abigail. Told prismatically, with alternating short chapters titled "Then" and "Now," it is the tale of a sensitive, innocent young Nigerian woman who endures personal and social tragedy -- only to be "moved" to London, to live with a distant "uncle." But, and here's an important "but," she's not too innocent, she's a real, angry, flawed human being. The book accomplishes so much, in so little time and space. It has a strong narrative pull, without any tricks. It paints musical pictures. It is poetic without being cloying, or self-aware.
Here are a few lines, almost at random:
"There was a quality of silence. An awe in the face of mountains that had kept the secrets for millennia. This drew Abigail to maps. Not all maps. Old ones. Printed on paper that was more parchment. Big ones. That unrolled with all the crackling promise of a flying carpet warming up."
This powerful book boxes you into a gut-wrenching emotional corner with visions so harrowing they rival anything by Haruki Murakami, but it hasn't lost its essential humanity. Spend a couple of hours with Becoming Abigail. It will change you, in a small but real way. Not for the faint of heart, but then again, neither is life.
'Til next time...
Ken Krimstein Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, professor, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.