- Book Review
Author : Lola Shoneyin
Genre : Literary Fiction
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Date of Publication: 2010
Number of Pages: 245
My Rating : 5 out of 5
Yes, I somehow ended up with two copies of this book. I think I bought the first one and whilst it was still on my ‘to read’ list I came across it again and bought a second copy!
Lola Shoneyin is a Nigerian poet. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was her debut novel published in 2010. Lola was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010 for this book. She won the PEN Oakland 2011 Josephine Miles Literary Award and the 2011 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prose Prize.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives features the Alao family, made up of Ishola Alao (Baba Segi) and his four wives – Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi and Bolanle. Iya is the Nigerian term for ‘mother of’ so they are named after their respective first born children. Baba Segi is, of course, named for the oldest child of the first wife.
The book opens with Baba Segi contemplating a problem that he has had to deal with before. The latest addition to his family, his wife Bolanle, has not yet conceived a child. The last time he faced this problem, he found the solution at Teacher’s shack, where men gather and discuss different topics over whiskey.
Teacher recommended a visit to a herbalist. Not long after taking the prescribed powder, his first wife got pregnant and Segi was born. Now with seven children from his three wives, he is again concerned because Bolanle has not yet conceived, after almost three years of marriage.
Bolanle is different from the other wives. She has gone to university and is educated, whereas they are not. She refuses to see a herbalist. Teacher advises Baba Segi to take her to a hospital.
Bolanle married Baba Segi against the wishes of her family and friends, who do not understand why she would marry an uneducated polygamist. Baba Segi’s other wives resent her because she is educated. As a result, they refuse to let her in on the secret that they all share, hoping to get rid of her.
When Baba Segi decides to visit the hospital with Bolanle, he sets in motion a course of events that will change their lives in unimaginable ways.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It gives us a good view of life in a polygamous family and the power dynamics that influence it. The role of the first wife and how it evolves as the husband gets more wives is explored. I enjoyed seeing the different personalities of the characters and how they affect their relationships.
Baba Segi believes he is fully in control of the family and tries as much as he can to be fair to all his wives. Iya Segi is cunning, wise and controlling. Iya Femi is spiteful and vengeful. Iya Tope is lazy and not so bright, yet she is also kind. Bolanle is lost and carries deep-seated pain.
Lola tells this story in an engaging way. She lets the main characters tell us their backstories and show us their feelings by using a first person narrative. In other places, she uses the third person to further the story. These characters are well developed and authentic. I empathised with them, even when I did not like their actions.
The book tackles themes such as polygamy, violence, infertility, prejudice and other social injustices. It is a beautiful narrative that both entertains, questions and challenges. It is a tale of how far people will go to get what they want and to maintain their livelihood.
It shows how easy it is to misjudge people and not appreciate their strengths. How our prejudices can make us blind to what should be obvious. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is – always be wary of karma!
I rate it 5 out of 5 and recommend it to lovers of African literature.