Book name: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Author: Lola Shoneyin
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Format: Print, ebook, audiobook
Publication Date: 2010
Star Rating: 5/5
Some novels are proudly character based, and in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives Shoneyin has produced a tense drama set within a family context: that of a husband, his wives and their children.
Serpent's Tail is an imprint of Profile Books. This is Shoneyin's debut novel, although she has also published three collections of poems.
She is a Nigerian author who lived in England for many years but now lives in Abuja, where she teaches English and drama at a local school.
Baba Segi has been married for some years when the story opens. He runs a profitable building supplies business, which enables him to support four wives and seven children in a comfortable home.
Baba Segi's youngest wife, Bolanle, is childless after several years of marriage. She is a graduate who eschews the traditional cures for infidelity in favour of consulting a hospital doctor.
The investigation of the couple's inability to conceive a child opens up a whole can of worms in a most unexpected way.
The plot was carefully managed so that it did not come out of the left field, and it was a very strong device used effectively to undermine Baba Segi's position of authority.
The plot moved really slowly, in part because of the unremitting focus on character.
I didn't mind this because it gave the author space to establish and develop all four wives as individuals as well as Baba Segi, their common husband, and to some extent the children, servants and extended family as well.
Backstories took up quite a bit of space, but the development that blows apart Baba Segi's social standing requires it.
I was consistently fascinated by everything that had happened to shape each of the four wives before the action of the novel started.
Frequent shifts in point of view facilitated the telling of stories that belonged to Bolanle, Iya Segi, Iya Tope and Iya Femi. First-person narrative was interspersed with a third-person narrative when the story was told via Baba Segi's eyes.
This was a little confusing for me, but on balance I preferred to see the story told through the experiences of all four women than to see their lives filtered through the perspective of just one or two of them.
Each wife had a unique and vivid personality, and that was one of the most impressive achievements of this novel.
There was a lot of tension between the women, in part because Bolanle has been to university. Tension between wives of the same husband is perhaps to be expected, and this novel was no rose-tinted work of idealism.
However, I would have liked to see some more positive relationships between the women. The hostility that Bolanle experiences in her own home was quite unpleasant, with a real dichtomy being created between a woman fortunate enough to have a college degree and those who circumstances have prevented from being given that opportunity.
When Bolanle tries to help them learn to read, she is brutally rebuffed. This status quo and firm dividing line persists at the end of the story, which is something I found quite disappointing. Solidarity between women matters.
As well as providing a grittily realistic portrait of the tensions in a polygamous household, this story threw a light on the pressures both men and women experience to be fertile in marriage.
Baba Segi means 'Father of Segi', his eldest child. He is defined by his role as father. Likewise, the three of his wives who have children are defined as mothers of Segi, Tope and Femi, their firstborn children. Only Bolanle, inexplicably barren, retains her own name as a label of identity.
I was fascinated by this glimpse into family life in a foreign culture, and very sympathetic to the pressures this cultural emphasis on fertility places on husband and wife alike.
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