Jumoke Verissimo’s debut novel follows the parallel journeys of two protagonists – Prof, a former academic returning home after serving a 10-year jail term for activism against Nigeria’s repressive military regime of the late 90s and Desire, an undergraduate student of LASU, who as a child, encountered Prof in the slums of Maroko.
In a dizzying tale, A Small Silence casts light on trauma, domestic violence, mental health, activism, poverty, marginalization, dysfunction, relationships, and parenting. It spurs a reflection on a significant yet overlooked aspect of Nigeria’s political history. It highlights the fact that while our days of military rule are over, we still recycle leaders from the same military class whose actions or inactions are telltale signs of a hijacked democracy. Such actions, eluding a sad reality that there are others today, who like Prof, are being denied their rights to free speech.
Using flashbacks, Verissimo takes the reader through the complicated lives of each character, aiding an understanding of their journeys and choices. Prof’s decision to shroud himself in darkness while alienating his family, Desire’s determination to know him beyond the newspaper cutouts she hides in her books and the complicated bond they form with curtains drawn and light bulbs off, till the chiming of the grandfather’s clock. Desire becomes Prof’s reason for willing to confront his trauma and Prof, hers for wanting something more out of life. In a way, they tell a story of salvation and possibilities.
Verissimo’s background as a poet is apparent in the enviably easy and non-verbose narration, with deft use of metaphors, similes, and direct lines from poets like Pablo Neruda. Even though the reader occasionally struggles to maintain an active imagination due to the writer’s recurrent use of ‘while’ to explain how actions are linked, the story keeps its appeal to the end. As a result of the writer’s skillful designing and balancing of a credible dual-protagonist story, the narrative still closely intertwines, yet with distinct paths.
A Small Silence lets the reader witness the rebirth of a poet who combines personal trauma and evocative use of language and expressions to coax a belief in the regenerative power of darkness - trusting that things can be born from darkness, even a coming to terms with self. While bemoaning the distastefulness of our failed state, the reader is forced into introspection – What is freedom to me? What far will I go for freedom? What is normal?
Even as one ponders, Prof’s unseen companion, Desanya responds with a perspective that could yield hope - “someone I loved once gave me a box of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift” (Pg 21). A Small Silence holds no magical answers, but it is one book that will prod you to confront your silences, to find answers within yourself, and to see the cheer in bleakness.