From the Orange List: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives
"Bolanle, how old were you when you started menstruating?"

"I was thirteen."

"And how long do you normally menstruate for? How many days each month, I mean?"

"Four to five days."

"Heavy? Light?"

Baba Segi couldn't hold back. "Do you not know that you are talking to another man's wife? All these questions you are asking are meaningless. She is bar-ren..."

Baba Segi has four wives - Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle. He also has seven kids through his first three wives. Baba Segi and his wives, barring Bolanle, are uneducated. Although Baba Segi was initially enamored by the fact of Bolanle's education, he was soon becoming troubled by her because she hasn't borne him a child since they were married. The other three wives don't try to get too close to Bolanle either. Iya Segi and Iya Femi openly dislike her, while Iya Tope doesn't want to cross the two wives by siding with Bolanle. Baba Segi tried to get Bolanle to agree to many quack remedies, but to no avail. When finally Baba Segi suggests that Bolanle visit a doctor, the latter agrees. Except, this is a decision that drastically affects everyone in the household.

I had been looking forward to reading this book since it released last year. First, it's the intriguing title and then the cover. And finally the setting - Nigeria is a country that I hadn't bookisited (I had total fun inventing that word), until I read this one! And while I'm not sure how close to the real country's culture it is, the book was entertaining in its own way.

The characters of this book start out as shallow, one-dimensional, and stereotypical. But it wasn't long before their hidden secret lives are revealed. It was an interesting transformation because I had no affection for Baba Segi at the beginning, but over time, he began growing on me, in spite of his male ego and supreme egoistic confidence in his infallibility. There were times when I appreciated that he was in a bigger soup than earlier imagined and that his problems were only just beginning.

Lola Shoneyin's The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives opens a window into the very secret (indeed!) lives of the wives. Each wife harbors at least one secret. None of their lives turned out to be as they wished. That background is what makes the characters of these women very multifaceted. By the time, their back-stories are revealed, none of the women appear similar to how I envisioned them. Although they all appear to be very dependent on the man of the house for their livelihood, it's interesting how the opposite is revealed to be the unintended status quo.

Bolanle is clearly the most rational person in the group. Her college education mostly contributes to that, but that doesn't make her any less fallible. She is mostly confused by the other wives' treatment but it isn't love that made her marry into that household. In addition, for a while she nurtured a lofty dream of educating the members of the house and changing their lives. Because she is childless, she is denied several comforts within their home, such as not having her own armchair. In addition, the other wives make up rules on the spot and get Baba Segi to side with them. They just want to kick Bolanle out of their home, but when their attempts aren't enough, they adopt riskier, more dangerous approaches. These approaches don't always have intended consequences. Far from being hilarious, they turn out to be disastrous.

There is a lot about the plot that I'm deliberately leaving out. This is genuinely a story that has to be enjoyed without knowing anything about it, since the lives of the wives are indeed secret and sometimes outrageous. Some parts of it are hilarious and while this is a very light entertaining read, the well-fleshed out characters have real-world issues stemming from ignorance, illiteracy and blind acceptance of customs. Lola's writing is very easy to read although her use of some metaphors had me very confused. But ultimately, this book was a very wonderful way to say how looks can be very deceptive and nothing like the person underneath.


I received this book for free for review from the publisher, William Morrow. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2011 and made it to the longlist.


14 comments:

Marg Bates said...

Weird....There were two reviews of this book posted within 1 minute of each other in my Google Reader! I do like to read books set in Nigeria, so have this on my list to get to one day!

Misha said...

I am absolutely dying to read this book! I thought this was a very serious book - I am glad to know that there are parts which are hilarious.

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I'm glad to see you enjoyed this book so much!!  It sounds right up my alley.

Nadia Anguiano said...

Aths, love the cover and title of your book. Mine was completely different and of course the title was changed - so weird. Anyhow, glad to see you liked the book, too. Its great when you can bookisit a place you've never been too - love your word invention!  I thought it was great to get a peek into a polygamist family lifestyle in a country that I've heard of, but never read about. Definitely an interesting read!

zibilee said...

I read this one a few months ago as a joint read with Aarti, and for some reason, I just couldn't get into it. I liked a lot of the plot, and found it rather entertaining, but the characters really bothered me for some reason. I think they felt a lot like caricatures for most of the book, and it impacted my overall experience of the story. I think that as more time passes, I am able to look back on it with more appreciation, but when I first finished it I was not able to do that. A little distance has made me better able to appreciate this one.

Helen Murdoch said...

I am so intrigued by this one. As you said, the title alone makes me want to read it. And the fact that you aren't revealing much makes me really want to read it. Bookisited... I LOVE it!

Carrie Dunham-LaGree said...

1. Bookisited is awesome. I will use it (with  credit, of course). I liked this one too, but it hasn't really stuck with me much. I am eager to see what Shoneyin does next.

Amy said...

Great review, I'm so glad to see you enjoyed this one. Nigeria has so many truly fantastic authors that I hope you check out a few more titles! Also, I love the new word you coined, Bookisited. 

Lena said...

Sounds lovely. I really like the unique names of the characters as well. You gave a really good review, without giving away too many details. Good job.

Kalpana Palaniswamy said...

Sounds like an interesting read.. Need to check this out..

Sheila (Book Journey) said...

I thought this one was pretty good too. 

Jen Ritter said...

I was curious about this book too but was afraid it would be a stinker.  Glad to read it's not.  Good review Ath, thank you :)

Beth(bookaholicmom) said...

I have been curious about this book. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it and found parts of it to be humorous. I'll definitely keep an eye out for it.

Melissa Taylor said...

I love your newly invented word! This sounds fascinating --