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The Smilodon

by E.K. Ndanguzi

Rating: ***

When Jonathan Matiku’s Father dies in a plane crash, responsibility to look after his younger brother Richie, falls to him. Their mother is at best emotionally absent and at worst, in the throes of an alcoholic binge. Despite his inauspicious upbringing, he manages to graduate from University with a promising future ahead of him. However, Jonathan cannot shake his insecurities, especially when he falls in love with Emilie, a successful lawyer from a wealthy family…

The Smilodon is a likeable book that contains some intelligent, thought-provoking writing. The prologue is intriguing, confident and immediately engaging. Jonathan’s early life with his Mother and Richie is both candid and disconcerting as is the passage later in the book when he returns to visit them. His Mother and Richie’s alcoholism and its squalid effects are described in a fairly unflinching manner. Personally, despite the depressing subject matter, the prose was strongest here and I could have read more of the relationship and addiction issues surrounding the three of them; there was a quiet power to these scenes that the rest of the novel does not possess. In the main, we follow Jonathan as he desperately tries to rid himself of his inferiority complex; he does present as rather self-indulgent at times and his personality meanders a little. I would have liked to have seen a little more definition of character in his depiction and a more linear approach to the narrative; there is quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing at the start.

The Smilodon is set mainly in Dar Es Salaam and the writing really invokes the culture and way of life in Tanzania; it felt incredibly authentic and accessible to read. However, in parts the prose is one-dimensional and there is an over-reliance on trivial detail especially the technical nature of Jonathan’s employment at iConnect, and this does affect the pace. The story is much more engaging when there is emotional detail such as the scene when Jonathan has lunch with Emilie’s family. The backstory to Peter Odhiambo, Jonathan’s immediate boss at iConnect, is touching and the novel moves up a gear when he is introduced. The characters of Marcus and to a lesser extent, Salum, are nicely observed and although you are rooting for Jonathan and Emilie to resolve their differences, I found her rather spoiled and unlikeable.

Nonetheless, The Smilodon is an engaging read that touches upon some affecting issues. Recommended.

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