The Shadow of a Smile
by Kachi A. Ozumba
Publisher: Alma Books
Upon first inspection The Shadow of a Smile has everything. It has deception; it has love and family loyalty; it has imprisonment, isolation and loss of innocence; it has illness and sacrifice. The underpinning foundation of the narrative is the unavoidable presence of bribery, corruption and betrayal that has infiltrated and taken residence in Nigeria. The narrative's overriding message is one of unfailing hope amidst a crooked society.
The novel starts with a great pace. It has short sharp sections where the narration flits back and forwards in time. The first few chapters are full of action, throwing us straight into a grim prison cell, and then taking us back in time through road accidents, violent fights and even more violent grief.
Zuba, our boy-to-man protagonist, grows up before our eyes and faces unrelenting challenges (bereavement, false imprisonment, seriously ill father and the task of stepping into his shoes). Zuba's responses to these challenges (sincere anger, utter shock, endless hope and selflessness) show us that he is a kind, honest and fair young man who acts with care and integrity, even in the most dire situations.
It is the power of his noble responses to adversity that allows Zuba to take control of his helpless circumstances. Zuba is described as having 'a lightness to his walk', and as being 'not wily enough for this world'. He is a peacemaker. He is 'a handsome young man, full of promise'. He is tentative and assertive. He is a troubled hero; 'Zuba paced back and forth on the veranda, barechested'.
In spite of his heroic actions, Zuba is not a superhero. He is a very real, very likeable young man who has a flawless character, but who has a pertinent physical flaw in the shape of a keloid (swollen scar) on his forehead (the presence of which he is always aware).
This may be a good moment to mention my one (rather large) criticism of this novel; the novel's one keloid, if you like. The presence of Zuba's keloid is referred to many times by Ozumba, in phrases such as, 'he began to stroke his keloid', 'began to rub his keloid', 'rubbed his keloid'...these phrases became tired and repetitive by the end of the novel. I think Ozumba was attempting to draw attention to how people are acutely aware of their own imperfections, and how a shared imperfection creates an instant bond between two people. However, Ozumba's observation of human behaviour isn't portrayed with any insight or depth. I think what is missing is a flair for language and description. I couldn't help but be reminded of the type of fiction produced by school pupils when asked to write a descriptive passage. This extract will illustrate my point:
'Tiny, revolting, mean-looking, orange-black glassy-bodied lice were lodged along the seams'.
The description in the novel focussed almost solely on 3 areas:
Colour: 'The clouds shed their sullenness and now sparkled a cheery silvery blue'; 'Apart from the church and the green-painted offices to their left, the other blocks framing the yard looked greyed.'
Facial expressions: 'A smile played on the lips of the leader of the group'; 'The smugness vanished from Mr Egbetuyi's face...[his] mouth hung open in mid-sentence...Zuba was too dazed to give them more than a vague glance'.
Smells: 'The mattress smelt of rancid sweat and drool'; 'The air filled with the scent of burning flesh'.
While these descriptions are good and powerful, I found myself wanting more; more depth and more variety. I wanted more factors to be considered. For example, a pattern emerged where males responded to bad news by vomiting and females responded by unstoppable crying. I became bored with the repetition of these descriptions.
I understand the over-description of facial expressions because Ozumba is drawing attention to the importance of the subtleties in people's faces and how a glint in someone's eye can be laden with meaning. While Ozumba described some brilliant facial expressions (for example 'Chairman flashed huge teeth at Zuba', 'His face split by the widest grin', 'her eyes were full of hate') I felt there were too many mundane references to smiling ('he attempted a smile', 'she smiled sadly') which laboured a delicate point.
The Shadow of a Smile seems to be an in depth study into displays of human emotion through facial expressions, but I fear it falls short due to an inability to explore and describe more diverse methods of communication, and a blindness to the depth and variety of emotion. The extract from Anna Akhmatova's Requiem, situated before the first chapter of the first section, hints that something as small as a shadow of a smile can change a person's entire face. Whether this is enough of a premise to sustain 300+ pages of fiction is debatable. If it is, Ozumba hasn't done justice to the profundities of the expression of emotion because he repeats the same phrases much too often.
The Shadow of a Smile has some beautiful moments, some hilarious moments ('A fart trumpeted from his elephantine buttocks'), some moving moments ('It was not the attention-seeking crying of children. It was silent like the bleeding of wounds'), and some joyous moments. The novel was spiked with these gems, but these moments weren't linked together with ease and they seemed too fleeting. The beginning and end were held together superbly with fast paced action, suspense and frequent plot developments, but the middle lingered and trudged around the same worn-out descriptions.
I would recommend The Shadow of a Smile for its big themes, likeable characters and moments of beauty, but I would warn a potential reader to be patient through the slow parts and the repetitious descriptions of expressions, colour and smell.