I've been quite lucky over the past few months to receive a goodly selection of recently published books to review. This has exposed me to writers I might never have read otherwise and, for the most part, I've been enriched by the experience. So, when I got the opportunity to read the debut novel by Kachi A. Ozumba, a Nigerian writer, I jumped at the opportunity.
The only other African writer I've read has been Ben Okri, coincidentally also a Nigerian, and so I was keen to see how this fellow measured up. The blurb on the back of the book compares Ozumba to Okri, perhaps a little predictably, but I wasn't going to hold that against him. Nor was I going to hold the fact that I wasn't that keen about Okri based, admittedly, on the only novel of his I've read, the rather amorphous Astonishing the Gods. Despite not being crazy about the book as a whole the one thing I could see clearly was that Okri could write and quite beautifully too.
So I sent off my e-mail and said I'd be happy to have a look at the book. And sure enough, a few days later there was the familiar and comforting thwup! from the hall. On tearing open the envelope I found just the quaintest wee book – and as regular readers will know I am a sucker for quaint wee books. The catch was it wasn't the whole book. Oh, no. It was an advance reading copy including only three chapters, a fifth of the book.
So, here goes: a fifth of a review.
Wait a sec. Let me go back to the Okri for a minute. If I'd only read a fifth of Astonishing the Gods I have to say I would have been far more positive about the book that I have been above. The book begins well with a great opening line and a wonderful premise. It would have made a superb short story but it dragged a bit as a novel. What had excited me at first got old quite quickly.
So, what about Ozumba? Well, the first chapter opens with our protagonist Zuba and his friend Ike being locked into a prison cell, a cell that coincidentally already holds four men, for a crime they maintain they did not commit. The next two chapters provide a flashback to when Zuba was young through to when he leaves university and is just about to start his national service, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
If I was going to offer Ozumba any writerly advice, based purely on his first page, it would be to cut the adjectives – dim corridor, yellow walls, pockmarked concrete floor, rust-and-dirt-coloured bars – but he gets better. That said Okri is also one who tends to over-describe things, if I remember correctly. Maybe it's a Nigerian thing. Once we get the preliminaries over – personal effects handed over, guards bribed – the description of the politics of their cell is fascinating even if things feel as if they're a bit rushed: they meet their co-captives, get fed, fail to meet their lawyer (although they hear him outside), have a pee in the communal slop bucket and settle down to try and sleep while the mosquitoes snack on them all night – all of that in less than twenty pages. Now, I'm not one for dragging things out but even by my standards I would have included a bit more detail. That said, and here is my gripe, I have no idea what is going to come next. So, maybe by the time I'd have read the whole 320 pages I'd been sick of the place. I don't know. I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but I hated, and never finished, Bernard Malamud's, The Fixer.
When my wife was asking me about the quality of the writing my answer was something along the lines of, "Well, you know, I was too interested in what he was talking about to take much note." Is that a good or a bad thing? Let's just say he's not hard to read. The situation within the cell is fascinating in exactly the same way that reading about life in the Russian Gulags was for me. It kept my interest and it kept me turning pages. There were a few native expressions I wasn't sure about. Most are explained but he leaves a few to the context to suggest.
Each cell has a pecking order. At the top is the prefect. When the two men first enter the cell they are treated roughly until they cough up 500 naira each, what's called the "cell sho". Once they do they're shown their place in the pecking order. An old man is in last position and he's told: “Shift, shift, Papa … You will still be the last. And if by the end of the week you’re still here without completing your cell-sho we’ll give you only standing space.”
Ozumba doesn’t state explicitly what the dimensions of the cell are. What he does say is that a six-foot tall man was lying "with his head propped up against one wall and his toes brushing the one opposite." So less than 6' wide but how long? Probably not much longer. Probably just enough room for six men and one slop bucket.
After they have settled the prefect wants to know who they are:
“New man, you in white vest, come here,” the prefect said.
“Get up! Get up!” Mike waved at Zuba. “Obasanjo is calling you.”
Zuba scrambled to his feet. He had heard that cell prefects were called presidents. But he never thought they actually took a sitting president’s name. He stood straight before the prefect. “Mr President sir!”
A smile softened the prefect’s features. “What’s your name?”
“What kind of a name is that? Is it Igbo?”
“Yes. Short for Chikezuba.”
“What does it mean?”
“The Lord created enough wealth.”
Zuba rubbed his keloid.
“What kind of a lump is that on your forehead? Or is it a scar?”
Zuba snatched his hand off his face. He shook his head and said nothing.
“What happened to your forehead?” the prefect persisted.
“It’s from an accident, when I was a child.”
“What brought you people here?”
Zuba hesitated. Wasn’t it the case that people were sometimes beaten up if they claimed innocence? “A case of stealing.”
“What did you steal?”
“They said we stole money, and personal goods, from a family.”
Zuba hesitated again. He shook his head.
The prefect stared long and hard at him. “Well, it happens,” he said finally. “Do your people know you’re here?”
“No. But I’m sure they’ll find us soon.”
The keloid is a big thing with Zuba. In fact that's the title of the second chapter.
Keloids can be considered to be "scars that don't know when to stop." A keloid, sometimes referred to as a keloid scar, is a tough heaped-up scar that rises quite abruptly above the rest of the skin. It usually has a smooth top and a pink or purple colour. Keloids are irregularly shaped and tend to enlarge progressively. Unlike scars, keloids do not subside over time. – MedicineNet.com
Now, I have no idea how this is going to play out but by the time Zuba gets locked up at the start of the book he's had a lifetime of having to explain what this thing is on his face usually followed by his having to endure taunts the most predictable one being "Scarface".
The second chapter jumps straight into things with the car accident that killed his mother and caused the wound on his forehead that developed into the itchy keloid that plagues his life. As with the first chapter the incident is dealt with the minimum number of deft strokes. All the fussy adjectives have gone. Instead we get to see Zubu afresh, as a little boy literally scarred for life by a terrible accident. We also get to meet his sister, Nonye, four years younger than him and someone he is very close to.
As a result of being tormented at school Zuba broaches the matter with his father, Professor Chukwueloka Maduekwe. His response is incisive if a little heartless:
“You have something to say?” his father finally asked.
“Yes, Daddy. I want this kee loid removed. It has made me ugly.”
He was startled by the roar of his father’s laughter.
“You mean you’ve started thinking about girls? At this age? What are you, ten or eleven?” He laughed some more.
So the keloid stays. From all accounts, at least this is what he is told, removal is not that simple. The thing can reappear and be even worse after. Best to leave well alone.
In the third chapter he goes to university and does well:
He had had an essay published in his university’s biochemistry journal – a rare feat for an undergraduate – and his Head of Department was encouraging him to take up a career in science, and offering his services as mentor. Zuba had spent a great deal of the last semester with the man he had come to call his school father. He showed his father the journal during a rare father-son outing to a pub.
“Hmmm. Exploring the Biochemistry of Keloid and Scar Formation. Excellent!” The professor closed the journal and placed it beside his glass of beer. He extended his hand for a presidential handshake. “Congratulations. Making good in your course, are you?”
“Yes, Dad. But it’s more than just a course to me. It’s what I want to do with my life.”
“Writing scientific essays?”
“Researching and writing. I want to be a researcher.”
Professor Maduekwe laughed. “So you will like to spend the rest of your life as a lab rat, locked away from people, with microscopes, test tubes, slides and pipettes for company?”
“No, Dad. I will not only research. I will lecture too, like… like…” He rubbed his keloid. “I’ll just lecture too...”
But his father wants him to come and join the staff at the school he has just set up. Needless to say Zuba is none too keen. Besides he has his national service to get out of the way. His father offers to have a word with a friend at the National Service Directorate but his son sticks to his guns and gets posted to "Lokomo, a village in the southwest of the country [which had] been in the news a few months back when the inhabitants demonstrated over their lack of amenities."
And that's where I had to leave Zuba. The question I have to answer is: Do you want to know what happens to him, Jim? Yes, I have to be honest and say that I do. But I would also like to know a bit more about what's happened to him up till now. I expect coming of age happens pretty much the same way no matter what country you're in but there must be vast cultural differences in how that hurdle is negotiated and I felt much of that was skirted over. Perhaps this is because Ozumba didn't want to detract from the real focus of his book, the wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment of his protagonist, but I suspect it's because he's lived this life and there's nothing out of the ordinary there as far as he's concerned.
The press release has this to say about the book:
The author Jackie Kay says about Kachi A. Ozumba's forthcoming title, The Shadow of a Smile: "Kachi A Ozumba not only writes about a big important subject, corruption and imprisonment in Nigeria, he does so with consummate skill and humour. The Shadow of a Smile is a compelling novel that centres around Zuba, a complex and fascinating character whose weakness turns into his strength. Ozumba has a brilliant ear for dialogue, he brings Nigeria bubbling to the page. At times poignant, lyrical and often very funny, Kachi Ozumba is a talent to watch out for."
I expect she got to read the whole book. I certainly hope she did. The press release also promises that "[t]here is as much of The Shawshank Redemption in this story as there is Don Quixote." Now, that would be interesting if he can pull it off.
Kachi A. Ozumba was born in Nigeria in 1972. He is a winner of the 2006 Decibel Penguin short story prize, and his story ‘What’s in a Name?’ was published in the prizewinners’ anthology Volume 1: New Voices from A Diverse Culture.
He is the author of the travel memoir: Through the Eyes of an African: Impressions of the Danish Society and the Folk High Schools and is also one of the founders of the Nigerian Amateur Writers' Network (NAW-Net). You can read a number of his short stories online in the following e-zines: 'Arrival' in Pulp.Net, 'The Devil's Lies' in Liars' League and 'An African Dog and His Balls' and 'The Police Is Your Friend' in In Posse Review.
Ozumba holds a university degree in philosophy from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and an MA in creative writing from the University of Leeds. He is currently living in Newcastle where he is pursuing a research degree in literature/creative writing.
The Shadow of a Smile is published by Alma Books, RRP £12.99
You can download the first three chapters here and make your own mind up.