Jumoke Verissimo’s searing Lagos-set debut novel tells the story of Prof, a Nigerian activist and retired academic, formerly imprisoned for 10 years for protesting against the government’s treatment of disenfranchised communities. On his release, Prof shuns the world that drove him to the edge, embracing a life of solitude and sitting in darkness in his room at night. He has been revered by his community but now alienates family and friends, until a knock on the door from a young woman named Desire changes everything. Desire is an orphan, and a student who has idolised Prof since childhood. She returns each evening and they form a tenuous bond, threatened by the secrets both are carrying.
In the opening chapter, Verissimo establishes a charged, disquieting tone. The sense of alienation is palpable as Prof moves around his apartment, the banality of everyday activities hanging heavy in an oppressive environment. There is very little joy in his home: he is a man moored on an island of his own creation. When Desire arrives in his life, they sit together in the dark, listening to each other’s silences.
Deftly shifting between the perspectives of the two protagonists, this is a visceral exploration of trauma and how individuals relegated to the margins of society cope in the aftermath of damage. For Prof, living with memories of torture and emotional torment, darkness symbolises the regenerative power of the human spirit. Desire wants to pull him away from the shadows.
The narrative maintains an air of mystery as we are drawn into their present and past worlds. Verissimo is a poet and the novel is infused with a poetic sensibility, lyrical without being verbose. In one instance, she describes an encounter outside an activists’ meeting: “His gaze landed on this little girl with eyes like water in a glass.” In another, Desire sees Prof in a daydream, “clods of blood stuck to the hairs of his full beard like the plastered look of unkempt dreadlocks left to define their own destiny”.
A Small Silence feels like an act of literary disruption. Hypnotic, expertly crafted and full of subtle power, it challenges cultural norms around silence, darkness and solitude, leaving the reader changed in ways that are hard to define.
• A Small Silence by Jumoke Verissimo is published by Cassava Republic (RRP £11.99) To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian