"Fattening for Gabon" is Uwem Akpan's second story (nouvella length at 130 pages) in the collection, "Say You're One of Them".
It starts off innocently enough with a young (10-year old) boy narrating how his maternal uncle offers to take him and his 5-year old sister to live with him on the border of Benin and Gabon because the boy's parents are dying of AIDS and too poor and sick to look after the children, but the story very gradually starts to take on a sinister tone which gets completely brutal towards the end.
“Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids”: that is the blunt line with which “Fattening for Gabon” begins. I wish so much Akpan hadn't used that opening line because it really does give it all away. The story is so beautifully written that had Akpan waited to reveal this, say about halfway through the story, I think the reader would have been shaken to the core (and which reader doesn't mind being shaken?) Anyway, what's done is done and this other child-narrated story succeeds in provoking the whole gamut of emotions, from incredulity to disgust and from confusion to absolute fear in the reader. For me, the biggest issue here was child manipulation, I could have screamed at all of the adults in this story and cheerfully lined up against a wall to be shot. I know, I know some of you might think I am over reacting but you know, when Uwem Akpan was interviewed he stated that all these stories were drawn from real people he met and counselled in his years as a Jesuit Priest. Just to know that there are adults like this makes my blood boil.
Again, as in the previous story, one of Akpan's strengths is in how he slips into the skins of his characters no matter what gender or age they might be. He also has such a gift for description and narration. There are several scenes that stand out for me in this story, the main one being the Thanksgiving service at church that Fofo Kpee(the uncle) organizes in order to give thanks for his (ill-begotten) gain. Akpan describes the procession, the dancing, the characters, their clothes, the gifts, the priest's invocations, the offertory to god and the elation the family feels to be given so much importance on that day, so vividly it is literally like watching the service unfold on a cinematic screen. What a writer this man is!
Something I liked very much (and that's probably because I listened to this on audio as well as read it in print) is Akpan's frequent use of the local dialect in the dialogue. Four colloquial languages were used in this particular story...English, French Idaatcha and Egun sometimes in the same paragraph. I have spoken to people who found that distracting...not me!!! I guess knowing a little French does help speed the read along.
Last, but not least...the title is very conversation-worthy...but that, I'm afraid, will be a whole different post!
If you would like to read an excerpt from "Fattening of Gabon"..please go here
Or you might want to watch the Oprah Book Club interview and book discussion with the author here