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Swallow Paperback – July 2, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In Atta's spirited and largehearted second novel (after the collection, News from Home), two young woman office workers navigate the rapids of the urban jungle of Lagos. Rose, and the narrator, Tolani, live and work together, making the long, arduous daily commute by bus and sharing "seats, sweat, and gossip." They often don't agree: Rose, at 30, flits from man to man to avoid falling into what she calls "the black hole" of dependency and inertia, and disapproves of Tolani's longtime boyfriend, Sanwo, who won't propose. However, Rose's irrepressible temper gets her fired, leaving her vulnerable to the manipulation of a new boyfriend, OC, who convinces her to mule drugs to England. Tolani has her own woes: she breaks up with Sanwo after he loses her savings; she has to work with a new, lecherous boss; her aging mother is ever more fragile; and she learns her father, now dead, may not have actually been her father. But will she take OC up on his offer of quick money? Tolani's tale encompasses towns and villages, corruption and superstition, deceit and loyalty, all beautifully layered and building toward a wallop you never see coming. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

Nigerian-born Atta, now living in the U.S., excels at telling stories of her native land, this time centering on bank clerk Tolani Ajao and Rose, her friend, roommate, and colleague at Federal Community Bank in Lagos, with interspersed accounts by Tolani’s mother, Arike, in her native village of Makoku. After Rose is fired for slapping her boss, Tolani gets her job and puts the man on notice when he sexually harasses her, displaying the same strength her mother showed as a young woman who shocked townspeople by riding a Vespa in her village. With Rose out of work and Tolani suspended, they consider drug running to make ends meet. As Tolani struggles with the morality of being a mule and the difficulty in swallowing the contraband, she must also deal with her boyfriend, who has lost her savings, while being haunted by questions of her own parentage. Atta captures the sights, sounds, and smells of her native land in the 1980s, with its War against Indiscipline in effect, as it straddles Western ways and native customs. A meandering novel with a painful punch. --Michele Leber
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Interlink Pub Group; Tra edition (July 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566568331
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566568333
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #762,052 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Tolani is a single woman living with a roommate, Rose, in Lagos, Nigeria. In the beginning of the story, both women work in the same office where red tape, biases, and corruption abound. Rose is fired and Tolani is made to take her place with Rose's immoral boss, Mr. Salako. Besides the relationship of these two women, Tolani's mother's story seeps intermittently into the plot, giving it even more depth.

Later, while Rose takes up with a drug dealer, Tolani loses her boyfriend. What happens to these two women at the end of the story, and more so, what happens internally to Tolani is a powerful tale. It addresses women's psychological struggles and their fights to find their rightful place in a corrupt society.

This book was an eye-opener for me. I knew little if nothing about Nigeria, about its tribal prejudices, city and country life, civil war, and corruption in government and society, but I was especially impressed by the uniquely strong women in the story, strong despite superstition, social prejudice, and difficult everyday life, and also, I thought their camaraderie despite everything was truly awesome.

What most pleases me about this novel is its skillful portrayal of fully developed characters. It is those characters that carry the plot through the minute details of everyday life. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story could have been a bore, but Sefi Atta's pen has made it a literary winner.
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In her novel Swallow, Sefi Atta gives us the story of Tolani Ajao and her obstinate friend and roommate Rose. Tolani and Rose are two women living in Lagos, Nigeria during the eighties, and the story follows their struggles to survive in an urban world that is adverse to women and hostile towards all.
From its very beginning the novel impresses us with the dangers of transportation, both public and private, in Lagos. The bus carrying the narrator, Tolani, and Rose nearly overturns, flinging its screaming passengers and conductor about before righting itself and carrying on with its journey as if nothing ever happened. This is only one of many stories illuminating the perils of the road in Lagos, and the characters are quick to turn their attention back to more important matters. Unpleasant bus rides and the stench, danger, and discomfort of public transport is evident throughout the novel, as it is in much of Nigerian fiction, but this particular incident sets the tone for the novel as a whole and seems to reflect more than the various incidents of public transport. The novel is filled with sudden shocks of danger and distress, and Tolani is in a constant struggle to regain her balance and to find satisfaction in a life that seems consistently willing to crush her.
The daughter of a famous drummer, Tolani comes from the small town of Makoku. Once a predominant farming community ruled by a royal family, the Makoku of Tolani's youth -- and especially that of her mother's youth -- has transformed into a place filled with service businesses, shrinking farms, and diminished forests. The main story narrated by Tolani is interspersed with pieces of Tolani's mother's story and the Makoku she grew up in with Tolani's father.
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Format: Paperback
Sefi Atta's Swallow is nothing like what I expected. This book has so many things going for it I was almost afraid to read it! Quality international Fiction is hard to find in the United States, let alone to find one that has been well translated by someone who understands the culture, and then add on top that this is a book by a woman! It's like the trifecta of interesting literature! Atta's book has all of the sensitivity and character description you could ever ask for, but the plot leaves you wanting.

I have to wonder if the difficulties I had with this book aren't a result of the very thing I was excited about when reading it, authentic cultural literature. Swallow was well written with a clear, consistent voice. Tolani is a single woman, negotiating the changes from her parent's Nigeria in a small farming town and her own experiences in the poverty ridden urban area of Lagos. She is unmarried, but has a long term boyfriend who has been promising to marry her for over two years. She is quiet and well behaved, never moving forward or backwards, her life is stagnant.

In opposition to Tolani's good behavior we are given the character of Rose, her co-worker and roommate. Rose sees money and sex as freedom and is desperate to improve her station. She is opinionated and audacious, taking risks that Tolani would never consider.

In between the stories of the two friends are stories that Tolani's mother Arike have told her daughter throughout her life about how she met Tolani's father and life in rural Nigeria.

The characters we are given in this story and the vivid emotions of the three, very different women involved are fantastic. You can feel the authenticity of their stories.
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Format: Paperback
The book opens with a dialogue between two friends on the bus, on their way to work, after narrowly escaping a possible accident. Rose talks a lot, and preferably about what her friend Tolani should do with her life and her boyfriend, while Tolani herself only gives laconic replies. Both face an uphill struggle trying to survive in the chaotic metropolis of Lagos, Nigeria, in a society dominated by men who tend to be unreliable, molesting, or even criminal.

Tolani doesn't appear to be very good at getting her way through dialogue, even though there is a lot of it going on. Somehow, it never goes her way, and she always ends up swallowing her pride. Her employers kick her around, her useless boyfriend squanders her savings, her mother tells her everything except what she needs to know, and her friend Rose signs the pair of them up for a trip as drug mules, which, again, requires Tolani to swallow her pride, not to mention a condom filled with cocaine.

With its colourful representation of everyday life in Nigeria, this short novel (like Atta's debut, Everything good will come) is very engaging in the short term, for 10 or 20 pages. I especially enjoyed the swipes at us western people ("oyinbo" seems to be the Yoruba equivalent to "gringo"), such as: "... oyinbos write theories about things they can't understand, and by the time they finish, you can't understand either, even if they're writing about you." (p. 167) However, given the very slow pace of the progress our heroine makes, the reading experience is also a little bit frustrating in the longer term. This may very well be intentional, reflecting the frustration that this woman suffers every day. Only in the very last paragraph she seems to have picked herself up. "It's my turn to speak," she says. About time, too.
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