A review of Sefi Atta’s novel “Swallow” – Toni Kan

(As the screen adaptation of Sefi Atta’s novel Swallow makes its Netflix debut on October 1, we bring you Toni Kan’s review of the novel . The movie is directed by Kunle Afolayan.)

There is a sense of emptiness, a certain kind of loss, grief even, that one feels when the last page of a good book is turned and the cover is shut. That’s what I felt when I came to the end of Sefi Atta’s new novel, Swallow.

Now, let us begin by dispelling some wrong notions about this novel. Award-winning Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga gets it wrong in her blurb for the book. This book is not about Rose and Tolani. Sure, it does focus on their tempestuous relationship as flatmates and colleagues, but limiting the powerful narrative of Swallow to the two women is to do the novel a disservice.

It is more the story of another set of women—one old, one young—connected by circumstances of birth and yet held apart by secrets, which in true Sefi Atta fashion ensures that at the end nothing is ever what it seems. And this fact is made clear by the narrative structure employed in the novel, with two narrators telling the story on two different levels and tableaux—the contemporary setting of Lagos and the bucolic setting of rural Makoku.

The second notion which we need to dispel is the belief that the tittle Swallow refers just to the act of swallowing cocaine. The term “swallow” is at once symbolic and physical. Physical in the sense of the actual swallowing, but symbolic in the sense that the nation is like a huge python with bared fangs swallowing all the dreams and aspirations of the people—from Tolani to Rose, Godwin to Johnny Walker, Mama Chidi to Mrs Durojaiye.

Tolani captures this well in her narrative when she says in reference to Mama Chidi, “I was so sure she would have been an academic anywhere else in the world. Here in Lagos she was a housewife who loved reading so much she forgot reality and burned her meals.”

Sefi Atta’s brilliantly controlled, assured and endearing narrative of the city is reminiscent of Ben Okri at the height of his powers in novels like Flowers and Shadows, The Landscapes Within and even The Famished Road—novels in which he is the most adept chronicler of the angst and anomie of city dwellers. No contemporary Nigerian writer is better than Sefi Atta at evoking the smells, sounds and the sheer madness of this sprawling cosmopolitan city of Lagos.

The portrait of 1980s Lagos in Swallow is an unforgiving one, and every attempt to ameliorate the hardness, to seek for softness is rebuffed and repudiated without mercy. You “see” it in the hard, weather-beaten and careworn faces of the characters that inhabit the pages of the novel. This portrait is markedly different from the face of Lagos which we saw in Sefi Attah’s debut novel Everything Good Will Come, a novel which was in many ways and on many levels a love song and a panegyric of sorts to Lagos.

The Lagos we see in Swallow is no love song: it is a keening dirge for the death of dreams, the atrophying of values and moral degeneration. The Lagos we encounter in Sefi Atta’s Swallow is a carnivorous wasteland that devours dreams and aspirations. Her characters speak and sound like people you would meet if you stood for five minutes at the nearest bus stop, and they say things you would only hear if you lived in a tenement house and eavesdropped on your neighbours.

When Tolani tells Rose about the trouble she is having at work with Mr. Salako, Rose says to her, “He is doing this to pepper you.” When Tolani visits Violet at Simpatico, the salon run by the latter, we hear Violet say to Tolani in true Lagos fashion: “I have to eat right now. My ‘Ghana High’ is getting cold.”

Further in the book, after Violet has finished eating, she looks at Tolani and says, “Why are you so quiet? You look haggard. Have you lost or what?” And by lost she means lost weight.

This ability to capture everyday speech with verisimilitude makes the novel evocative of time and place, imbuing the narrative with an authentic and natural feel.

Because Lagos is a microcosm of Nigeria, tribal sentiments frequently bubble to the surface of the narrative, but Sefi Atta is adept at avoiding the ever-yawning trap of appearing to favour one tribe over another, as her words are placed in the mouths of characters thus limiting authorial intrusion to the barest minimum.

In Swallow, almost every ethnic groupmakes a cameo and receives some bashing, but these pills are sugar-coated with humour.

Sefi Atta’s Swallow is fierce and unapologetic in its ‘Nigerianess’. You can see, smell, hear and taste Nigeria in her lush prose. The author weaves the story of Nigerian society through the lives of three women as they swim through the murky waters of corruption, male chauvinism, drug trafficking, poverty and economic instability.

The use of the episodic plot in the novel is quite effective. There are several sections in the story where the reader could easily be confused by the sudden change in period, but thanks to the printer’s convention of using different font types for different periods, finding the string of the story is made easier for the reader. However, in a bid to make her characters speak in the tongue of the 1980s, the author tries a bit too hard.

Though the end of the novel is somewhat ungratifying (Ms. Atta seems to insist on ending her novels in a fashion that leaves the readers lifted high for the drop, and then left hanging), it is the boldness of these women as they face and challenge reality that stays with you. The novel could have been a more rewarding experience, but it will definitely prod you to start asking questions.

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(First published in Farafina Magazine No. 15,  2008)

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