I found Nigerian author’s Swallow to be a very interesting one, although, at first glance, it was hard to tell what the novel would be about. With its sparse cover design and absolutely no synopsis to speak of, it was a chance read, really - based on the fact that I had recently read a wonderful collection of short stories from Africa called An African Quilt. What’s more interesting about it, more than anything else, is the subtext, which is really what the novel is about, despite the story the protagonists are carried through by the author.
It is the story of two friends - Tolani (a 28 year old professional and of Yoruba heritage) and her best friend and roommate Rose - a more firey opinionated loose cannon who very early in the novel loses her job due to mouthing off to her boss. You learn very early on that Nigeria is still very much a patriarchal society, where women are second class citizens, often treated harshly and subject to unwanted sexual advances. While Tolani keeps pushing her boyfriend to marry her, Rose is busy running around with all kinds of men, some of whom are not the most upstanding citizens. The early part of the novel focuses on Tolani’s and Rose’s friendship and how it is beginning to get strained due to their very different personalities. The one thing they both have in common is their desire for something more, only the two go about obtaining it in very different ways as they struggle to find their place in contemporary Lagos, far from their hometowns in the interior of the country. This difference is contrasted by Tolani’s thoughts about her mother and her mother’s story about how she had met Tolani’s father (who may or may not be who Tolani thinks he is) - a famous drummer who was often off on the road somewhere and one days dies in a fatal car accident. Tolani’s mother’s story contrasts life in Nigeria’s interior - prior to independence - with modern day Nigeria in very interesting ways, showing the clash between contemporary and “traditional” society. Meanwhile, Rose is slipping further and further into desperation until one day she believes she has found her way out of what she sees as a stifling and an endlessly stagnant future she sees coming for herself; a way that nearly pulls Tolani along with her.
As much as the novel focuses on the two women and their friendship, the novel is really about contemporary Nigeria and how it is dealing with its legacy of colonialism, independence, dictatorship, corruption and rising religious differences. It hovers over everything, helping the reader to feel the sense of desperation which lingers over the two women as well as the other characters in the story. It is about how woman struggle to be true to themselves in a system in which some still cling to ancient beliefs and mores, as well as old tribal loyalties and conflicts. There is also an element of race and class to deal with as well. All of the above is written in a very matter-of-fact way, which is one other thing that I found interesting about the novel.
This is the first novel from Sefi Atta that I’ve read so I am not all that familiar with her work and approach. The prose is well written and there is a story to grab onto here but there’s also a certain “flatness” to it all which makes it hard to empathize with some of the characters at times. While there are very well written sections of the novel, I felt that sometimes the subtext overtook the main storyline, making it seem less important. All in all, a decent novel, and a very interesting window into Nigerian society and where women’s place is within it.