Zuba is a recent university graduate bearing a prominent scar "like a leech fastened to his head". He dreams of becoming an accomplished scientist. In his past lies a family tragedy the car accident that scarred him and killed his younger brother and mother. There is also his sister, Nonye (also a survivor of the crash), and their father, Professor Maduekwe, an erratic, domineering man for whom life "had been one long tale of joys nipped in the bud".
But the few joys left are about to be further depleted, at a time when he has chosen to start a new career as proprietor of a high school. He sacks the pioneer Principal and replaces him with Mrs Egbetuyi, a woman who, with her ex-army officer husband, form "an incongruous pair." Zuba and Professor Maduekwe both jostle for space as protagonists, until the father is confined to a hospital bed. It falls on the son to carry on his bad luck.
The Egbetuyis turn out to be a troublesome couple, and Zuba sacks Mrs Egbetuyi. But he lacks something they have in abundance a sense of cunning. In the face of this cruel cunning, neither a naive twentysomething nor his Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) lawyer Nigeria's equivalent of a QC will stand much of a chance. Before long Zuba realises how far the Egbetuyis will go in seeking revenge, and he and Ike, his father's driver, soon find themselves facing trumped-up charges.
The events of Kachi Ozumba's first novel happen at the turn of the millennium, when Nigeria has just shaken off a stretch of military rule. In the North, the Islamic penal code is spreading; in the South-East, the setting, special brands of justice operate informally by the Bakassi Boys (a ruthless cult) and "formally" by the Nigeria Police Force. Which is worse is hard to tell.
The Shadow of a Smile takes the reader on a painstaking excursion through the catacombs of Nigeria's penal system; from a police station to courtrooms to cells behind the glass-and-barbed-wire-topped walls of a prison. The only apparent difference between a police cell and the prison is in the size. Every other thing is identical, from the hierarchical structure to the role of money in buying life-altering privileges. Ozumba's gift for capturing detail is astonishing, if not so surprising for someone who has been a victim of this system.
Some parts fail to convince. The helplessness of a SAN in the face of bottom-rung policemen is difficult to believe, in a country where the sight of a lawyers' association sticker on a car will drive fear into the hearts of most police. But Barrister Chigbo ruefully explains to Zuba that his persecutors were advised "by policemen who understand very well how the law of evidence works." Ozumba has written a tragic story exploring the powerlessness of the law, and the ease with which it can be abused by those appointed its custodians.