Echoes of life in a sprawling city

2011-05-18 00:00

SEFI Atta is a Nigerian author who has won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa with her first novel. Swallow is narrated by Tolani who moves to the city of Lagos to find a life for herself.

The rambling first-person narrative echoes the nature of life in the sprawling city, where civil decay gnaws at the edges of civilisation.

Tolani shares a small flat with her best friend Rose. Arguing is Rose’s favourite­ pastime. This argumentative personality gets Rose into trouble at the offices of the bank where they both work. She is sacked by her boss Mr Salako when she slaps him across the face. She won’t tell Tolani the reasons behind her violent reaction to him, but there are hints of inappropriate behaviour.

Tolani is promoted to Rose’s former position and finds herself the recipient­ of Salako’s unwelcome attentions.

Tolani also has to deal with the daily inconveniences of life in Lagos. The septic tank at their building is broken and a young boy has apparently fallen inside, yet still no one fixes the tank. There are strikes in the city which fester like an old wound. Tribalism threatens relationships with prejudice dictating how people treat others and crime of all sorts is rampant.

Rose’s boyfriend offers her a quick way to make money. It involves swallowing a condom filled with cocaine.

Tolani gives her life savings to her boyfriend in a sure-fire investment. Of course he loses it. When she puts in a complaint about her boss she’s tempted to make money by learning to swallow too.

Things don’t work out as they’d planned and Tolani finally goes home to her rural village, looking for peace. It’s no idyll either. Prejudice rears its ugly head and her mother is disappointed that her daughter hasn’t made a life for herself.

In the end she finds ties that bind her to her mother. And they’re stronger than the decorative material her mother weaves.

This is an interesting look at Nigeria­ and how complicated life can be when you are a young woman trying to make your way in an unstable world.

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