Berlie Doherty’s Abela: the Girl Who Saw Lions

Posted: August 3, 2008 in alternating narratives, Berlie Doherty, children's and young adult literature, race

Doherty, Berlie.  Abela: the Girl Who Saw Lions.  London: Andersen Press, 2007

One narrative is about a girl in London with a loving family–single mother, doting grandparents.  The other alternating one is about a girl originally in Africa who has watched her parents die of AIDS, then been illegally brought to England by an uncle who wants to sell her for cash, seized, fostered, etc.; a Dickensian tale of a beleaguered organ, filled with much woe and much melodrama.   The English mother wants to adopt a sister for her daughter, also half African (although readers don’t find that out until well into the book–more about that later); and so as a reader I find myself assuming from the beginning that the African girl,  Abela, will end up adopted by the other family.  And of course that does eventually happen, although there are glitches along the way, including a failed attempted adoption of a boy (who instead is reunited with his father, and who might end up back in the family if a romance develops between this dad and our mom, as hinted at the end of the book).  It’s intriguing, then, that two such different stories–different characters, different places, absolutely no crossover of characters or settings until very close to the end, should seem so obviously unified, but only in a reader’s imagination, and then only for a reader equipped with standard assumptions about fictional wholeness and closure.  This shows, then, how much such assumptions are taken to be operative, even in a relatively simple novel for young, inexperienced readers.

Obviously, also, a reader equipped with those assumptions is placed in a position of superior knowledge–know things the characters can’t and don’t know about events that are affecting or will affect them.  This is a prime example of what I identify as a soap-opera effect: equivalent to what happens in a soap opera because viewers are aware as they watch specific scenes of earlier scenes involving other characters in which information has been communicated that viewers know might have an effect on other non-present characters not aware of the information  (huh?  not, obviously, the clearest way of saying that).  Such a viewer, or in the case of this novel, reader, knows more than any of the individual characters–and so must follow all their stories, unable to intervene but in possession of knowledge that might help them or lead them in wiser directions.   There’s the pleasure of knowing better, and also, the more subtle pleasure of having to watch characters make mistakes, etc, that one knows in advance will be mistakes.   So as the family adopts the boy, a reader must view with alarm, knowing that the perfect adoptable sister, Abela, is right there in the last and next chapter and in need of a home just like their, and what will happen to the poor thing now?  I don’t know why “Oh, if only they knew” is so pleasurable.  But it surely is.

Abela is also a prefect example of how an apparently dialogical book–one that offers two differing lifestyles or points of view–can be so completely monological or one-sided.  It’s true and even inevitable that the book will end up with Abela integrated into the family of the other narrative.  First off, there’s a kind of variational effect, as readers seem to be invited to compare what’s happening to Rosa, the girl in England, with what happens to Abela in Africa.  This involves not only a kind of sociological interest in how they live in differing circumstances, but also, an implied weighing of the meanings of their lives, in which the English girl seems to sound like a self-involved moaner for complaining about the things that bother her once those things are compared to the excessive horrors Abela is facing.   In a book with just the one narrative of Rosa’s, Rosa would seem to have legitimate complaints about things that seriously bother her–but once Abela’s story is interspersed, she seems so shallow, so unaware of how fortunate she is, how comparatively insignificant her problems are, etc.   A spoiled little middle-class princess.

And surely that’s all deliberate: the book uses the horror of a child’s life in Africa to show child readers (assumed, I think, as having access to such books, to be living lives more like Rosa’s) how very fortunate they are, and how they should thank their stars for it and be more thoughtful about others worse off.  For this is a very high-minded and very earnest book, very much displaying its political credentials and its urge for awareness and action and doing good unto others.

On the other hand, however,  while Rosa seems shallow in comparison to the brave and beset-upon Abela, Rosa’s life is clearly more desirable, and not just because its cleaner and safer.  As a child of Africa Abela seems to stand out from everyone around her for her courage, her lack of cynicism, etc, etc.  The adults around her are either vicious like her uncle or helpless like her grandmother, whereas Rosa’ grandparents are loving and involved and her mother a thoughtful caring person.   Africans, clearly, cannot (or should not?) look after themselves.  Strangely, in the context of all this concern for the oppressed, the only apparently admirable black characters in the book are the children, and the only really desirable lifestyle that available in a good middle-class home with white adults in England.  There seems, in other words, an apparently unconscious cleavage to assumptions about how best to be and where best to live that has, for me, colonialist overtones.   The happy ending is when Abela leaves her African past, with, presumably, the opportunity to be as “normally” British as her new sister–a girl so “normal” that her African background and with it, I assume, her skin colour, can be held back as a kind of surprise for the reader to enjoy later on in the book.  Her visible difference from her mother and grandparents is, first, not mentioned, and so, I think, readers are assumed to be likely to assume she will be white like her relatives–which the author then uses to create the weird surprise effect of her background and visible difference., and uses as a sort of parallel to what happens to Rosas’ own problems.   Just as Rosa stupidly thinks her relatively insignificant issues are unbearable, we as readers have been shown to be making silly assumptions about race.   Why can’t a normal English girl be a person of colour?  How narrowminded of us to not have considered that craftily hidden possibility.  and why do I feel so manipulated?

Well, so it’s obvious I don’t like this book.  It feels manipulative and it’s so earnest and forthright in its politics that it seems almost more a piece of propaganda, a learning tool about African childhoods and middle-class duty to others and so on, than a novel; and so over the top about all that that I suspect it undermines its own political thrust.   And it certainly reveals how alternating narratives can be orchestrated to manipulate readers’ response and univocally confirm one-sided views in the midst of a display of apparently multivocal difference.

Oh, there’s one other thing I need to mention a about this book.  The narratives alternate between the two girls–but then, within each of their sections, there are transitions from descriptions of what’s happening to them in the third person to passages in the first person in which they convey their own thoughts and experiences.  it’s a sort of outside-and-then-inside effect, and perhaps reveals another reason for some of my uneasiness here.  What readers find in the characters’ own stories confirms what the third-person sections say, so that any sense of the characters having a real voice is somehow absorbed into the authors’ control of and intentions concerning them.  Narratives excusively in the  first person would perhaps allow for more expression of actual difference or actual confusion or upset, and narratives exclusively in the third would be less likely to raise the quesiton of co-option, since we wouldn’t have first-person reports to be asking these sorts of questions about.  It is, in any case, an odd way to proceed, and it’s something I need to think about more.

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Comments
  1. AlexM says:

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. […] 2008, Brenda Randolph and Elizabeth DeMulder reveal a trap I’ve fallen into in my earlier discussion of Abela when they suggest an important way to challenge African stereotypes:  “Use the names of […]

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