The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

41xpj48yyXLFiction — print. William Morrow, 2010. 280 pgs. Library copy.

Shoneyin’s novel caught my attention not because it was long-listed for the Orange Prize this year but because the novel deals with polygamy in Nigeria. I have a particular interest in the practice of polygamy around the world, both in the past and present.

This fictional account introduces readers to Baba Segi, described as “plump, vain, and prosperous middle-aged man”, and his for wives: Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle. The fourth and youngest wife, Bolanle, has yet to become pregnant much to the displeasure of her husband. Baba Segi’s decision to take her to the hospital to find out why she is barren, however, threatens to unveil secrets and destroy his family.

The narration of this novel shifts from third person point of view to the first person point of view of Bolanle to the first person point of view of Iya Tope to third person to first person. Sound confusing? It was. Other than marriage, there really wasn’t much stringing these characters and their narratives together. The voices and characters of Baba Segi and the first three wives left much to be desired. Part of my frustration with the narration stemmed from the fact that their was nothing to make the three other women stand out from one another. There were several chapters where I could not tell who was narrating until the end of the chapter or the character I thought was narrating was not. The only woman who stood out was Bolanle, and I think the story would have worked better had she been the sole narrator.

Iya Segi, Iya Tope, and Iya Femi are all stereotypes of women in polygamist relationships while Baba Segi is presented as a typical, ignorant polygamist husband who places value on his children above his wives and expects everyone to wait on him hand and foot. Iya Segi and Iya Femi loathe the newest addition to their family, Bolanle, and go so far as to kick and spit on their new sister wife. The women ridicule her for not having children, and become enraged when Baba Segi buys her an armchair before she has a child. As an educated woman, Bolanle offers to teach the women and children how to read but first wife, Iya Segi, steps in and threatens to deny Iya Tope food and funds when she and her daughters take Bolanle up on her offer. The women’s motives are not fully explained despite the brief looks the reader is offered into their background when the women take turns narrating.

I appreciated the look into polygamy in Nigeria, but I was ultimately disappointed with this novel that held so much promise in its first few chapters.

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