“ Author: Lola Shoneyin / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 06 January 2011 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Profile Books Ltd / Title: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives / ISBN 13: 9781846687495 / ISBN 10: 1846687495 / Alternative EAN: 9781846687488 „
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Baba Segi's three wives are not happy when their husband brings home wife number four. Not only is Bolanle younger than the rest of them but she is also a graduate whilst they are illiterate and they resent the attention she is given. Iya Segi, Iya Femi and Iya Tope do everything they can to undermine Bolanle to try and drive her out of the house. Baba Segi wants Bolanle to produce more children to add to his existing brood of seven and despairs when she does not immediately fall pregnant. Bolanle fears that her dark secret will be exposed to the world but it turns out that she is not the only one in the household who has things to hide.
'The Secret Lives Of Baba Segi's Wives' is set in modern day Nigeria and focuses on one polygamous household. In examining the lives of one family, the social attitudes of the country are also examined with huge gaps between the rich and poor as well as very different attitudes to women than in the UK. It seems that women can very much be seen as commodities, to be given to a husband and that their social status very much depends on them marrying and producing children. There is also a huge stigma towards unmarried women and any woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock, it sounds very much like British attitudes several decades ago. These women may depend on men to give them status but this doesn't mean they are doormats, they each have their own way of exerting their power over their husband and family.
Baba Segi is a wealthy business owner, a heavy drinker and has some disgusting habits but he is also a surprisingly likeable man. He loves his family and tries to keep his wives happy, he also adores his children and does everything he can to teach them about the world. Each of the wives are very different in personality but during the book we learn what makes them tick and how they came to be married to Baba Segi and their lives before they met him.
The story is told in a variety of different voices and also in the third person. This could be a tad confusing as the chapter headings did not indicate who was speaking and it sometimes took a couple of pages to work out the change in narator. There were several unfamiliar words used in the book and there were times when a glassary would have been helpful; I never realised that 'babi' meant father until about halfway through the book for example. The African words add a lovely poetic rhythm to the prose and despite the occasional problem with strange words it is a pleasure to read.
'The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives' is a lovely book which is both moving, tragic and funny all at the same time. Nigeria is brought to life as a vibrant country full of interesting characters and the story itself is full of twists and turns.
Bolanle, a graduate, disappoints her ambitious mother when she announces her intention to marry. Not only is Bolanle rejecting the path her mother hoped for her, she's going to become the fourth of a polygamous man. The other wives, illiterate all of them, treat Bolanle with suspicion; they don't like the way that Bolanle is regarded as some kind of trophy because of her academic achievements and they make no secret of their dislike. However, things take a sinister turn when Bolanle unwittingly threatens to expose a terrible secret in the household.
"The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives" is narrated in turns by the adult members of the household. While this has some advantages in revealing the story bit by bit, building up the tension and gradually exposing the web of deceit on which the household precariously hangs, I did find it difficult to distinguish between the voices of the first three wives for at least the first half of the book. While this didn't really act as a barrier to my understanding of the story, or my enjoyment generally, it does highlight a weakness in characterisation.
There are no such problems with Baba Segi: he's every bit the boorish patriarch, interested only in having a cluster of kids at his feet to demonstrate his virility, and filling his big belly each evening. The reader learns very quickly just what kind of man he is, ruling his household with an iron fist, but it's his persistent belly-ache, something he takes to mean that there is something amiss in this household, that exposes his simplicity and his lack of education. Eventually we learn why Baba Segi favours a polygamous lifestyle but not before we learn why women, each strong in their own way, would agree to participate in such a practice in a contemporary society that does not demand it.
This novel is an open window into modern Nigeria and the author effortlessly paints a vibrant and colourful portrait of both rural and urban people and attitudes. It's a story of contrasts that are subtle but crystal clear. It's a society where men make the rules and virility is commensurate with status and power, but one in which women can make or break a man's reputation. From business practices to domestic details, the novel introduces the reader to Nigerian life without ever seeming too didactic. Even the names of the characters are explained in a subtle way. "Baba Segi" means father of Segi, his oldest child, while Segi's mother is Iya Segi; Iya Tope is so called because her oldest child is Tope. A father however, is always referred to by the name of his first child; this in a country where great importance is placed on one's status as a parent.
It's an immensely readable story, told with much humour but I felt that once or twice the humour threatened to overshadow the tragic moments. There is real sadness and even violence in the story which I felt was usually too quickly forgotten. While Babi Segi's character is brilliantly developed, there was a tendency to portray him as a larger than life clown which detracted from the horror of his behaviour at times. That said, I found the book quite shocking in places, as I guess I was supposed to. The author does not make an outright condemnation of polygamy, after all, the four wives each have different reasons for their choice, but does show how Nigerian society regards it, condemning it in one breath, then silently looking the other way when it makes them uncomfortable.
Lola Shoneyin has produced a story that appears at first lightly woven but proves to be hiding a very serious and moving tale. The shades of light and dark are well balanced and the narration is finely nuanced to draw up a picture of a modern Nigeria that is struggling to throw off the past. It's colourful, dramatic, enlightening and emotive without being overly sentimental. A gripping and compelling read.