By Uwem Akpan
368 pages. Little, Brown.
Uwem Akpan is a Jesuit priest. His debut collection of stories, Say You're One of Them (Little, Brown), features the most delightful author bio I have ever encountered: "I was born under a palm-wine tree in Ikot Akpan Eda in Ikot Ekpene Diocese in Nigeria. I was inspired to write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after Sunday Mass, by the Bible, and by the humor and endurance of the poor...." The humor, the endurance, the horrors and grace—Akpan has captured all of it in these five long and richly detailed stories. Almost all the narrators are children—exposed to poverty, criminality, and conflict ("Fattening for Gabon" begins: "Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids," and it gets more harrowing from there). The stories are not only amazing and moving, and imbued with a powerful moral courage—they are also surprisingly expert. Akpan gracefully balances the narrative prose that forms the spines of his tales with the melodic French-English patois many of his characters speak. The long-story form can be unwieldy, but his are beautifully constructed, stately in a way that offsets their impoverished scenarios. Akpan wants you to see and feel Africa, its glory and its pain. And you do, which makes this an extraordinary book.
This is one of O's top 10 books of 2009. See the complete list of terrific reads here.