Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives
Harper Collins, 2010

(Looking for a swallow rather than a full glass? ORANGE Squirt below.)

Countless contemporary novels have taken the landscape of the monogamous marriage and its secrets as their subject, so it’s hardly surprising that a polygamous marriage, like that of Baba Segi, has an abundance of secrets with which to fill the pages of Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel.

The dynamics of a marriage — or four marriages — create for terrific creative tension, across cultures, across continents. Whether it be the relationship between husband and wife, or the relationships between husband and wives, there are recognizable patterns, both in and out of Africa.

But this is not Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Nobody has a farm at the foot of any hills. There are no long descriptive passages about Ibadan, Nigeria.

“Sango market was a long, muddy street. Shielded from the sun, the colors under the stalls’ rusted iron sheets blended into a collage of dreary hues. The oranges dulled into maroon: the violets and greens smeared into navy blue. Wading through the stalls amid perspiring flesh was exhausting but I was not deterred.”

So although the novel has an African setting, and although it’s hard to imagine it set elsewhere, the setting seems to be as much about emotional terrain as geographical roots.

The reader has, for instance, a sense of what it’s like to “wade” through the stalls in the market as described above, and their nose gets involved too, but what’s just as important is the piece of information about the narrator, who is exhausted but not deterred.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is a novel rooted in character. And, at first, there are a lot of characters to keep track of. After all, not just one wife, but four.

At first, the simplest way to distinguish between the women is to track the names of the children. And that’s perfect because Baba Segi’s children (and the lack thereof) are at the heart of this story.

How many children there are by each wife, whether they are male or female, these are the matters of concern regarding his first three wives; how many there are not, why there has been no conception with his fourth wife, Bolanle, is the pressing matter of concern which occasions the novel.

The secrets announced in the novel’s title are, in some instances, directly connected with these matters. But the women have many secrets. And why not? They’re the stuff of good stories.

[There are secrets in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! too. “When you are a kid, you don’t know yet that a secret, like an animal, can evolve. Like an animal, a secret can develop a self-preserving intelligence. Shaglike, mute and thick, a knowledge with a fur: your secret.”]

Many of the secrets in Lola Shoneyin’s novel have developed a “self-preserving intelligence” too. And so even the readers have to wait to learn them.

Segments of the novel are told from different perspectives, but the secrets are revealed after the women have come into their own, when the reader has a good sense of them as individuals, fleshed out beyond their children’s identities.

There are some overarching influences that each of the wives experiences. Being female, there are certain restrictions. Living in a patriarchal culture, a “girl cannot inherit her father’s house because it is everyone’s prayer that she will marry and make her husband’s home her own…that is the way things are.”

Baba Segi’s wives are completely dependent on him in many ways. This creates a particular tension between the four women, who each seek satisfaction of a variety of needs which they cannot fulfill independently. Each time another woman is added to the household, an additional layer of strain manifests.

“What are relations like between Bolanle and these other wives? There must be a reason why they were fighting tongue and nail for her to confess.”

It can get pretty nasty. But the novel does not get mired in issues of racism and sexism. Lola Shoneyin writes with a light hand. She acknowledges these systems, but keeps the story rooted in character. A scene which might have been menacing and foreboding is playful and dynamic instead.

“He slid a tinted glass door aside and there they were, his wives, lined up in a row, caught in the act of satisfying their curiosity.”

Yes, there they are, the three wives lined up in a row, caught in the act of satisfying…well, here they are satisfying their curiosity. But, as you might guess, in a novel revolving around conception and child-rearing, there are other kinds of satisfaction to be considered as well.

How Baba Segi’s wives get their needs met — whether they be literal or figurative needs — keeps readers turning the pages, eager to learn the outcome of this family’s struggles and strains.

Read alongside a couple of other novels (say Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen, with an eye to the main character’s experience of motherhood and racism, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, with an eye to parental power and sibling relationships), this novel would contribute to a solid discussion in a bookgroup setting. As a standalone novel, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and the dramatic effects of the secrets concealed (and those which are not) do leave the reader with something to think about.

To shuttle this novel onto my list of re-reads, I would have required that Baba Segi’s character be developed slightly differently.

As is, Baba Segi exists for me in an awkward state of acquaintance. He is not simply a cardboard cutout, and he cannot be dismissed as either the Raging Polygamist or the Hapless Polygamist; his emotions are felt deeply, but without a voice of his own in the story, they don’t engage me with urgency, even when he is devastated as he gains understanding on some pivotal issues in his household.

With a little less of him in the novel, I could have mocked him, and I could have read the story as that of the wives solely, with Baba Segi ironically peripheral and central at the same time. With a little more of him in the novel, I could have understood the ways in which this system affects his decisions about being a husband and a father in a way that engaged my emotions more fully.

Is this just a long-winded way of my saying that a book can’t be important until it reflects the male experience, that I would only be interested in reading Lola Shoneyin’s novel again if it wasn’t only about women’s lives? No, that’s not it. From the title onwards, readers know that the wives are at the heart of this novel: I get it.

And, yet, the majority of these women’s secrets revolve around not only Baba Segi but also their other relationships with men. Perhaps that’s unavoidable. Perhaps it’s realistic. But, either way, a more complete understanding of Baba Segi, the one man with such considerable, pivotal influence over each woman’s life in this novel, would have brought another layer to the storytelling for me.

“When I first arrived in his house, I bought a large orange bowl and presented it to the wives. Iya Femi laughed when she saw it and said their husband only ate off white crockery, that he liked his food to supply color at meal times, that his food wasn’t worth eating if he couldn’t see the red of his palm oil and the green of his okra.”

Nonetheless, Lola Shoneyin has put some colour on my reader’s plate, and I’m heartily glad that the Orange Prize longlist brought her novel to my shelves.

ORANGE Squirt 2011: Book 4 of 20 (Lola Shoneyin)

Originality Voices of polygamy, including some unexpected contributors
Readability Inviting, scenic segments, some comic elements
Author’s voice Easy, direct, with a quick, wry smile that surfaces regularly
Narrative structure Alternating POVs, sometimes identified in chapter titles
Gaffes None spotted (though based on author’s bio I was expecting more pineapples)
Expectations Debut novel