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

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s program

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, set in modern-day Nigeria, tells the story of businessman Baba Segi and his four wives: Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle.  The story begins with the addition of Bolanle, the fourth wife, to the family.  Bolanle is everything the other three wives aren’t – young, educated, and beautiful – and the others clearly resent her for it.  When Bolanle discovers that she cannot conceive, she feels ashamed and fears the wrath of Baba Segi.  Through her pain, though, she eventually turns to the other wives and uncovers a huge secret that has been running through this household for years.

I’m not sure what to think about this book.  I was excited to read it, I enjoy books that look at cultures other than my own, and a polygamous family in Nigeria certainly qualifies as that.  Ultimately, however, the book overall was a disappointment to me.  There were some aspects of it I enjoyed, but mostly I found myself less than impressed.

First of all, the characterization of three of the four wives (with the exception of Bolanle) and Baba Segi left much to be desired.  None of them seemed like actual people to me, Baba Segi for one felt like a stereotype of a polygamous husband – he was rude, ugly, didn’t much care about his wives, and placed their value on the children they gave him.  The story was told in alternating points of view, with each wife narrating some of the chapters, and the unfortunate part of it was that I never could tell who was speaking, except from context.  The three older wives blended together into one character – they did not have distinct personalities and voices.  In fact, I began telling them apart by the names of their children, not their personalities, as that was just the easiest way to keep them straight.

The other issue I had with the book, and I don’t quite know how to explain this, but I can’t figure out what the book was trying to do.  If it was attempting to illuminate the issues of a modern-day polygamous family in Nigeria, I guess it sort of worked.  But if it was trying to say something about the validity of said marriages in a cultural context, it was a failure in my opinion because the ending almost makes a mockery of this entire marriage.  It’s strange – I actually really liked the ending, I was very entertained by it and it made me sort of enjoy the book overall, yet it sort of made me want to go back and laugh at everything else in the story.  It’s difficult to explain, as I can’t give away the family secret, but it just made everything sort of funny and strange at the same time.

I did, however, enjoy the character of Bolanle, and perhaps the book would have been better if it had been written from her perspective only.  She was the only character I understood and could differentiate from the others, and her voice was the only one I really “got”.  She was carrying around pain and secrets of her own, and I really felt for her – she got involved with this already-complete family, couldn’t fall in with the other wives, couldn’t produce a child, and Baba Segi was no help.  She was really alone in her situation, and consequently I could really root for her.

So, no I can’t really recommend The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, but on the other hand I’m not exactly sorry I read it either.  It’s just one of those books, I suppose.


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16 thoughts on “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

  1. Such a shame you didn’t enjoy this novel. I loved it, but maybe that’s because I am half Ghanaian. It’s a good job you had the humility to admit that you couldn’t ‘figure out what the book was trying to do’. Sometimes, this is due to our own limitations and not necessarily the fault of the author.
    The more I read reviews of African novels by Americans, the more I believe that we, in America, have become too insular. Who are we to say who seems like an actual ‘real’ person and who doesn’t? A Ghanaian friend of mine once told me how she was certain the Autobiography of Frederick Douglas was a work of fiction because she couldn’t believe the cruelty of the white slavers. They did not seem like real people to her. It is arrogant, and somewhat ignorant to think we can pass this sort of judgement about characters from a culture completely divorced from our own. I’ve read one or two reviews of this book and I find them completely condescending.
    The book is a commentary on polygamy, a far cry from Big Love, but beyond that, it draws attention to the plight of Nigerian women for whom polygamy has become an easy route out of poverty. It also addresses mental health and compromise. That’s what I figured out.
    I’m not saying this was an easy read but maybe you don’t enjoy work from other cultures as much as you think you do.

    1. Hi Susie, thanks for your comments. I am certainly not trying to be condescending when I say that the characters didn’t feel genuine to me, it’s simply the reaction I had to the book. And I would definitely say that my enjoyment of any book has little to do with the culture it’s set in, and much more to do with the story, the characters, the writing, my connection to the book, etc. I have disliked plenty of books by Americans just as I have enjoyed plenty of books by authors from cultures other than my own.

      *The book is a commentary on polygamy, a far cry from Big Love, but beyond that, it draws attention to the plight of Nigerian women for whom polygamy has become an easy route out of poverty. It also addresses mental health and compromise.* * * I would absolutely agree with your statement here, and while I see that the author was addressing those issues, for me the book overall wasn’t fantastic. Again, my opinion of the book isn’t because of the culture, simply because I couldn’t connect with it. Sometimes there is a book/reader mismatch, and perhaps for me this is one of those times. * *

  2. Ahhh I’m disappointed that everyone is not liking this book. I’m still going to give it a try myself, but am concerned I’ll have issues with it as well. Some great fiction out of Nigeria other than this book though so I hope you find something else to try that you love 🙂

    1. I’m disappointed too! No worries, Amy, I have read other books out of Nigeria and will continue to do so, you are right – there are plenty of great fiction works out there!

  3. Having never heard of this one until now I will make sure not to bother to bring it home. Because of wonderfully written reviews like this one, I feel that I have read it vicariously through you and the reasons that you didn’t care for this one sound valid. Thanks again for your insightful thoughts!

    1. Of course there are other views! I would never imply that my opinion is the only one to consider. That’s a beautiful review from Randy Susan Meyers, an author I really respect, however I didn’t like the book… that’s really all there is to it.

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