Lola Shoneyin - The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives (3 stars)

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

(Serpent’s Tail)

In her debut novel, Lola Shoneyin presents us with an engrossing portrayal of a polygamous household, in which four wives fiercely compete for their husband’s affections and go to great lengths to bear his children. The emotional damage that this ultimately wreaks isn’t purely imagined: Shoneyin’s own grandfather had five brides and her childhood was filled with stories of the sadness this caused her grandmother, his first wife.

Shoneyin – an acclaimed poet and now a teacher in Nigeria – grants each of her principal characters their own narration in alternating chapters. However, the cacophony of voices she presents don’t quite convince, and the story itself straddles an uncomfortable line between farce and tragedy. Nevertheless, the drama is buoyed by her keen imagination as she gradually builds up a rich portrait of a family on the verge of collapse and an uncompromising image of the grief that polygamy can cause.


1. Susie G7 May 2010, 2:25pm Report

A friend of mine heard this author on Woman's Hour and bought me a copy of the novel for my birthday. I read it in two nights and couldn't get it out of mind for days. This novel is so moving, yet so funny. In life, we don't plan sadness, or joy; funny things happen and they are often followed by shockingly sad events. I found the novel captured, with sensitivity, hilarious characters in a tragic situation. Nothing wrong with that!

Unlike the reviewer, I had no problems distinguishing between the wives' voices at all. One way of looking at it is that the gradual introduction to the individual wives' might be what you find in polygamous home. At first, the wives appear to be similar but as you hang about, you begin to see how different they are- one devious, one damaged, one obsessed with power.

I found the author's language fascinating and I still chuckle when I think about Baba Segi's (the patriarch's) shenanigans. I don't think the reviewer did this novel justice. This is a real shame because people might lose out on a fantastic read. I don't normally go for books by African authors but I will look out for them from now. Human beings are the same wherever they're from. I knew that already but I know it better now. Any recommendations?

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