I might not have read Sierra Leonean Paul Conton’s short story, “A Day at The High Court” (“A Day”), had it not been for the October surprise in my inbox—a .PDF copy of a letter GPK Legal, a Sierra Leone-based law firm, wrote to its parent body the Sierra Leone Bar Association. The six-page missive argues, among other things, that an assertion in the much-publicized Commissions of Inquiry Reports by Judge Biobele Georgewill damages the “reputation and integrity” of Sierra Leone’s legal professionals. To my lay mind, filled with unfortunate stereotypes about lawyers, the letter seemed a case of legal infighting, lawyers battling each other over Acts, Sections, Subsections, Rules and Principles—a case, I dare say, of the kettle arguing with the pot over whether they should tolerate the heat coming from the commissioned stove. And I would have been satisfied with dispatching the “fambul-tᴐk” letter to the recesses of my hard drive except that I inadvertently moved my cursor away from the.PDF file to my Kindle reader. It opened, and sitting there, magisterially, was “A Day.” The column next to it showed I had read zero percent. It seemed logical given I had read an unsolicited piece dealing with the law that I should read one which I paid for. Published in 2019, I reasoned Conton’s fictive world might offer some insight, if not judgment, into the realities of the legal profession foregrounded by GPK’s letter. Serendipity, one might say. I propose now to share my views on Conton’s story with the GPK letter as background, but before I do, let me disclose that Conton and I twenty-something-year-old teammates on the Sierra Leone National Cricket Team. In short, I know him well.
The plot of “A Day” is straightforward. The unnamed first-person narrator returns from overseas to find squatters have occupied his family home. The story recounts his efforts to evict them. “A Day” presents as semi-autobiographical. The unnamed narrator, like Conton, is an engineer and has returned from many years abroad, as did Conton, once from the U.K. and a second time from the U.S. The story qualifies then as a returnee tale, a popular theme in the Afrodiasporic genre. Also, “A Day” renders the narrator’s passion, frustration, and aggravation so realistically that one suspects they emanate from lived experiences. That said, Conton’s skill as a writer also explains the realism. He won the 1993 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best First Book award (The Price of Liberty). Other African winners of this prize include internationally renowned Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie (Purple Hibiscus) and Diane Awerbuck (South Africa, Gardening at Night). Among Sierra Leonean writers, only Aminatta Forna, Syl Cheney-Coker, and Olufemi Terry have won comparable prizes. Conton’s handling of craft in this story amply validates his award.
As the form requires, his short story is exquisitely paced. It shuttles between carefully scaffolded summaries and scenes that build suspense toward the climactic resolution. Its two main settings, the Law Courts building and the home of one of the characters, function as symbols and metaphors to complement the action. The setting certainly means place, but it also conveys mood and attitude. In addition to other stylistic devices, the setting provides the subtext that will keep the literati happy.
Aside from the narrator, who enlists readers’ empathy right from the start, the other characters primarily represent types. Yet, they are sufficiently invested with psychological plausibility to pop up from the page as recognizable friends, neighbors, and office workers. The smooth, fast-talking Fixer and the judge’s clerk are two notables among this group. To enliven minor and stock characters sufficiently so they are engaging is a challenging skill to acquire. Many beginning writers struggle with it. The writing—concise, free of typos, and well-edited—is easy to read. It combines concrete details, sensory, and figurative language in precise doses. The story betrays little sign of being self-consciously artistic. Readers easily visualize places, characters, and action.
Thematically, “A Day” unquestionably strips off the robes and uniforms of judges, lawyers, and their enforcement partners, and it reveals endemic corruption, ineptitude, and indifference in the provision of justice in Sierra Leone. It dramatizes the message that justice delayed is justice denied. “A Day” deploys irony and satire to ridicule the characters and their behaviors. It offers a sobering counter vision to the one encouraged by the GPK letter. Still, it never rises to an excoriation of the legal profession. Two elements—humor and insight—account for this delicate balance of story and social criticism. The scene involving a judge, his wife, and the narrator, a brilliant writing piece, best captures this mix. Feathery humor lends grace to the action as the judge offers a supremacy-of-tradition argument as insight into the source of corruption in Sierra Leone. For a fuller explanation of his thesis, and to read this classically compact short story, pick up the Kindle or Cloud edition (at an affordable 0.99 cents) and give your verdict on the assertions about reputation, integrity, and tradition.
Pede Hollist is a Sierra Leonean-born professor of English and fiction writer at The University of Tampa, Fl. USA. and curator of this blog.