Alma 12.99 (314pp) 11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Shadow of a Smile, By Kachi Ozumba
Nigerian nightmare of law and disorder
Friday 30 October 2009
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.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Scottish independence: Ireland since 1919 is a lesson for Scotland in what a Yes vote means
- 2 Watch a man race the Circle line - and win
- 3 A bottle of wine a day is not bad for you and abstaining is worse than drinking, scientist claims
- 4 Grandmas keep accidentally tagging themselves as Grandmaster Flash on Facebook
- 5 Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'
Star Trek 3 to begin shooting within six months
Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
The Walking Dead season 5 air date, trailer and season 4 recap
Robin Thicke’s hit 'Blurred Lines' lands him in court, and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: Yes campaign feels the heat as Alex Salmond's NHS claims come under furious attack
Portuguese academic says British are 'filthy, violent and drunk'
£23m Birmingham cycle scheme is attacked by Tory councillor for not catering to the elderly