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Swallow
Swallow
Sefi Atta
Interlink Pub Group, 2010
296 pp., $15.00

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Laura Bramon Good


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Sefi Atta's Swallow wakes up in dusty, hazy Lagos and sets its sights on Rose and Tolani, a pair of young women whose intertwined fates argue the power of matrilineal ties in modern Africa. Old enough to be village spinsters but young enough to suffer the daily torments of a misogynist boss, the girls live the slim privileges of the employed—bus fare, rent money—in a city whose poverty, government crackdowns, and quick, senseless losses lend the novel an apocalyptic air.

Against this stark backdrop, Rose and narrator Tolani emerge as two halves of a butter-flied Rorschach blot: nearly identical, but with one side webbed and shadowed, the other precise, distinct. What sets them apart is their people—more particularly, the women who buoy them up: Rose's hedging, prostituting, city-clinging mother and half-sisters, and Tolani's village-tied mother, the last of a matriarchal adire-dying, husband-defying line.

As the novel's tragic action draws both young women into desperate attempts to evade poverty, this familial distinction grows all the more significant. Rose flounders and falls even as Tolani attempts to save her, while Tolani herself rises up on the memories of her mother's stories, and from there glimpses long-dead Aunt Iya Alaro, the outspoken adire dyer who took Tolani's mother as her prot&ecute;g&ecute;.

A feisty, childless Christian widow so feared by menfolk that they deemed her a witch, Iya's spirited dispute with village elders saved Tolani's young mother from forced marriage to a tribal chief. Even so, Iya insisted that the girl marry and have children. These and other interspersed remembrances, offered in Tolani's mother's voice, are some of the novel's most magnetic sections; they are stark and elegant, almost archetypal, but warmly humorous and lively so that the reader, too, receives the succor the stories bring to Tolani's shattering city life.

The matter of the mother holds more than symbolic significance for both young women. While Rose ...

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