On the 65th page of ‘Swallow’, a novel that brings alive military era Lagos, a boy is believed to have fallen into a septic tank. He was last seen jumping on its weak surface. His mother, a nurse in a government-owned but inadequately-funded hospital, is distraught. Neighbours are in shock and chaos takes centre stage. The mother rips her white uniform through the collar. She slaps a woman who tries to cover her up. Her bra and girdle are out for all eyes to see. She is soon screaming ‘Jesus of Nazareth. Lord, have mercy on me. Please have mercy…’ Does God answer her prayer? You have to read the book to find out.
Some 10 pages later, a drunk Rose and his ex, Johnny Walker, are at each other’s jugular— with Rose eventually pulling a knife and threatening to kill him.
These are some of the dramatic moments that enliven Sefi Atta’s third novel, which is soon to become a Netflix Original movie directed by the phenomenal Kunle Afolayan of the ‘Citation’ and ‘October 1st’ fame. The novel is becoming a movie at a time when Nigeria is led by Muhammadu Buhari, the man who was also Head of State at the time Atta set the didactic work and the social malaise treated in the book are driving Nigerians bonkers.
In this novel, Atta’s achievement in style and form is superb. Narrated by a daughter (Tolani) and her mother (Arike), each renders her account in the first person singular. The mother’s narration is about the sixties and before. The daughter’s is about the War Against Indiscipline era and all its shenanigans. The daughter talks about Lagos, the mother about Makoku, an Egba settlement not far-flung from the city of aquatic splendour.
The novel is the heart-breaking story of Tolani and Rose, two young women struggling in Lagos. Told in a readable voice, it shows how two very different people try to cohabit in the bustle, chaos and fast rhythm of Lagos Island and Lagos mainland.
The novel’stakes off the day Rose, Tolani’s flatmate and colleague, loses her job at a bank on the Island. After Rose’s sack, her boss, the morally-bankrupt Mr Salako, instigates Tolani’s transfer to his office. Before long, he starts trying to touch her inappropriately and she finds a smart way to resist him.
The now jobless Rose, who will never pledge to a country like Nigeria, gets enmeshed in a deal she tries to get Tolani involved. This tempting deal puts Tolani in a dilemma.
Arike’s perspective has the oral narration feel with all its rawness and originality. Her story is very instructive. A woman, a strong one at that, refuses to marry a king and decides to marry a drummer who despite his versatility and closeness to a renowned juju maestro prefers the village life to the madness of Lagos, a carnivorous city that eventually consumes him.
Arike typifies a woman of class. Going against the grain, she makes history as the first woman in Makoku to ride a Vespa motorcycle and she is self-taught. Through her, we see the pressure married women are put under over when they will become mothers as though the decision is solely theirs to make. We also see how the society envies independent-minded cum successful women. And there are very searing debates about religion and faith. The advent of pentecostalism and prosperity preaching is availed enough room.
The pages of this book are redolent with social commentaries. Nigeria, its leaders and citizens are not spared from appropriate blows. Our craze for foreign fabrics and everything foreign and the abandonment of the rustic for the urban do not escape Atta’s scrutiny.
‘Swallow’ portrays Atta as a great painter, and with words, she brings out the colours, the smells and the flavours of the city. The Lagos Atta paints is where roads are filled with potholes, where soldiers flog civilians, where there are austerity measures in place, where people like to shout; mothers shout at their kids, where hawkers shout to attract customers, drivers shout at pedestrians, friends shout at each other, where passengers rush to board buses, and where prosperity preachers are on the loose. General madness, everywhere!
In this work, there is so much to see: we see corruption and superstition, we see deceit and loyalty and plots are unfolded stunningly with a style that benefits from layered and tempered storytelling that takes you on routes not anticipated. We also see gender, class, and intrigues. We equally see a government’s attempt to stop doctors and nurses from getting their dues and ultimately making the health system better.
The author writes lyrically and eloquently about ordinary life using the right dosage of suspense to keep the reader going. It beats with concise astuteness and denouement. On the novel’s pages, Atta takes charge, dictates and endears her narration to us with the skills of an adept chronicler.
The book teems with unforgettable characters. Aside Tolani, Arike and Rose, there isMr. Salako, Alhaji Umar, Franka, Ignatius, Sanwo, Mrs Durojaiye, OC and Johnny Walker. They have enough energy to make a reader cry, laugh and even curse.
Of all her novels (‘Everything Good Will Come’, ‘A Bit of Difference’ and ‘The Bead Collector’), ‘Swallow’ appears to shine brighter in form, style, and content. It is pure magic that even at the end, a reader is still left searching for an answer to a particular question Arike keeps dodging and Tolani is left with no choice to stop pestering.
Will Afolayan be able to replicate the book’s magic? Will he capture the sights, sounds, and smells of the 1980s Lagos and its Western ways and customs? Will he deliver a meandering tale with painful punches as seen on the pages of this riveting work of fiction? Will this work’s tenderness, fierceness, boldness, distinctiveness and rhythm find a home in the cinematic representation? Given Afolayan’s reputation and the fact that he worked with Atta on the screenplay to retain as much of the text as possible, there should be no cause for alarm. We are waiting!
One a last note: If you are the type who looks forward to seeing chapter one, chapter two or a subtitle depicting one chapter from the other, this book does not have that. Only symbols and space plus italics are used to depict such. The narration from each perspective is also not marked out with the name of the narrator at its beginning, but Atta superbly connects the tale and it is not difficult in telling when there is a shift. Usually, Tolani gives an indication when she wants to yield the floor to her mother, whose interventions brim with ancient wisdom.
Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and ‘In The Name of Our Father’