Set in present day Senegal, One Shadow on the Wall is about an interrupted childhood, one’s resolve to keep promises in spite of temptations, as well as a community’s daily struggle to make life meaningful. Told in the third person point of view, Leah Henderson’s debut novel take places in a small fishing village in Northern Senegal. Eleven-year-old Mor is an orphan who is trailed by the ghosts of his father and mother—one audible, and the other visible but mute— as he tries to keep his promise to take care of his younger sisters. Henderson weaves in the struggles of the talibés, these children from rural areas who are sent to the city in order to memorize the Qur’an, but often end up begging in the streets as part of their training. The author is kind to her characters, and showcases Senegalese teranga (hospitality) and the sense of solidarity in this community. The writing is elegant, sometimes poetic, and the magic realism adds color to the narrative.
The lack of understanding of kinship relations and the role of a mother’s family in her children’s lives makes the story of Mor and his sisters less believable. There are many subtle mistakes that would not go unnoticed to a reader from Senegal. For example, her description of “taille basse,” a peplum top that hits few inches below the waist, as dragging on the floor, is annoying. Characters use traditional terms like baay (father), which is usually heard in rural areas, but kiss on the forehead like Americans. The extensive use of Wolof words is overbearing and feels forced, especially because the author is not consistent with the transcription. She sometimes utilizes standardized Wolof as in yaay (mother), baay (father), but many times she uses French transcription such as khale (xale) pithie (picc), sidèmes (sidéem), or wrongly transcribes terms, as in her use of “may ma jaam” (give me a slave), while she was supposed to write “may ma jàmm” (give me peace, or leave me alone).
Overall, the novel should appeal to readers who are looking to have an elementary understanding of Senegalese culture.
Reviewed by Marame Gueye, Ph.D. Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Literatures, East Carolina University
Published in Africa Access Review (March 21, 2018)
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