Graceland is one of those books that you know will be a difficult, perhaps even devastating read. But it is a book that you will want to read and will want to finish, because, well, because Chris Abani really is that good.

Teenaged Elvis Oke lives in a Lagos ghetto with his alcoholic father Sunday, stepmother and step-siblings. He picks up some tips dancing for the tourists on the beach, dressed as Elvis Presley of course, but is forced to find a more stable income to support his family. Elvis and his friend Redemption dream of living in America, but their version of America is influenced by old movies (a lot of John Wayne films are watched in Lagos). Redemption leads him on a rather shady path which promises big, easy money, and this seedy, rather gruesome underworld begins to engulf Elvis. The narrative moves from Elvis’ younger years in the 1970s, as his mother succumbs to cancer, and throughout the book are excerpts from his mother’s diary which includes recipes.

Elvis is such an unforgettable character. He is determined to succeed in his own way and educates himself through books. His dream of being an Elvis impersonator is a goal that is kind of funny and charming.

“He read books for different reasons and had them everywhere he was: one in his backpack, which he called his on-the-road book, usually one that held an inspirational message for him; one by his bed; and one he kept tucked in the hole in the wall in the toilet for those cool evenings when a gentle breeze actually made the smell there bearable enough to stay and read.”

I loved the images that Abani paints of Lagos and Elvis’ life. He has a keen eye for details, the sights, the sounds, the smells even. Elvis’ life is a harsh life, but one that is also vibrant and vivid. Graceland is a dark story but one with such life and hope. It will move you with its sadness and heartfelt grace.

Chris Abani’s work
* The Virgin of Flames
* GraceLand
* Masters of the Board

* Becoming Abigail
* Song For Night

I read this book for the Global Reading Challenge 2011 (Africa)