Helon Habila, . . Norton, $23.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-393-05193-3

Habila's first novel captures the chaos and brutality of Nigeria in the 1990s under the rule of despotic military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. The story follows Lomba, a quixotic, apolitical student in the capital city of Lagos, who is trying to write a novel in his shabby tenement on Morgan Street (better known as Poverty Street) and covering arts for a city newspaper, the Dial. Soon, Lomba's roommate is attacked by soldiers, journalists are arrested all over the city and the Dial offices are set on fire. Lomba decides to take part in a prodemocracy demonstration. There, he is arrested and imprisoned for three years. The novel's narrative moves back and forth in time, beginning with Lomba's life in prison and ending with the climactic events leading up to the arrest. Some chapters are written in the third person, others narrated by Lomba himself and still others by a high school student named Kela, who lives near Lomba on Poverty Street and crosses paths with him just before the fateful demonstration. Through their eyes, Habila paints an extraordinary tableau of Poverty Street ("one of the many decrepit, disease-ridden quarters that dotted the city of Lagos like ringworm on a beggar's body"), bringing their sounds, sights and smells to life with his spare prose and flair for metaphor. Kela's aunt runs the Godwill Food Centre Restaurant; through his encounters with the patrons, as well as his activist English teacher, Kela (and readers) learn about Nigeria's bloody postcolonial history. Though somewhat marred by the abrupt, disorienting shifts among narrators and time periods, this is a powerful, startlingly vivid novel. (Jan.)