“Lies hide between words and the truth need not draw attention to itself”
Everybody loves a good story little gossip, and this is how Swallow begins; right into it – from the first page, no time to waste.
‘Swallow’ opens with Rose and Tolani sharing some stories gossip while on a bus on their way to work, and if you aren’t hooked from page 1, page 2 surely seals the deal with lines like…
“Oh yes, my sister,” Rose said. “That Sanwo of yours. He’s not serious at all. Every day he’s promising and still no dowry. The way things are going with that man, you’re heading for a black hole… No house, no job in Lagos… He says he wants to marry you?”
I nodded, in case she’d forgotten that other passengers were listening.
From the early pages, you are introduced and drawn deeper into the ‘Lagos living’ of Tolani Ajao of Makoku village and Rose who were both roommates and colleagues.
The Author does a brilliant job bringing Lagos to life in this book from the backbiting colleagues at work down to the street smells, and her descriptive prowess when writing about the surroundings and sheer madness of their daily commute.
“Every morning at five thirty, when the air was cool, Rose and I caught a kabukabu from the end of our street to another district. There we waited at a stop for our name “Who Knows Tomorrow?” If our bus arrived on time and if it didn’t break down along the way, we arrived at Tafawa Balewa Square in the city centre at quarter to eight. Our bank was another fifteen-minute walk away…
… In the evenings, our scramble began at the bus stop. We elbowed and pushed people out of our way. We woke up early in the mornings to avoid crowds. After work, the crowds were there, waiting for the same buses heading in the same direction of the main land. Quarrels, plenty. Chaos, unbelievable. Sometimes, the police showed up and horsewhipped people… they treated us like cattle. The bus terminal was like a market. If we managed to get on the bus on time, we watched the exodus in the evenings – people at the bus stops along the bridge, some with sacks on their shoulders and baskets on their heads, school children carrying books and chairs – everyone’s eyes as red as the sun”
As Toni Kan [Author of Nights of a Creaking Bed and …..] puts it “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”. Veronique Tadjo [Author of As The Crow Flies] says “The bustle, chaos and fast rhythm of Lagos jump out from the pages of Swallow… it is fiction steeped in life”
We couldn’t agree more! And even though the story is set in the mid-80s, Sefi’s depiction of Lagos is so real and relatable, that even people who have lived in Lagos after the 80s and very recently may wonder if the busy city changes at all or is only a slightly modified version of the same ‘script’ decade in, decade out.
The tales of Lagos may be sweet, but as you read on, you begin to hunger for more stories of Makoku and its inhabitants as recounted by Arike, Tolani’s mother. These stories indeed become the icing on the cake, and the author finds a rather brilliant way of weaving tales of the past and the present, the city and the village into this easy read.
Swallow is an engaging story with an excellent flow which we found hard to put down. It did waver a bit towards the end but bounced back and had a nice flow till the last page.
After a succession of unfortunate events, Tolani ends up in Makoku to see her mother so that she could confirm a rumour – a secret she’d kept for years for fear of knowing the truth.
“As my mother spoke to me that night, I laughed and I cried, although I’d heard her stories before, about her childhood fight with my father, his dedication to work and careless generosity. She talked about her own work, her beloved Vespa and esusu investment scheme… about an oyinbo man who brought her fame, and another local man who made her infamous… but the moment arrived when she said “There is something I haven’t revealed as of yet…”
Everybody loves a little gossip good story, and this is exactly how the book ends. Swallow isn’t one of Sefi Atta’s newest books, but it definitely is one of our best. It is a memorable story; the sort of book you have for years but would notice if it went missing from your shelf