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.