Baba Segi is a Nigerian businessman with four wives: Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi and Bolanle (each named after their first born child, apart from Bolanle who has not had children). Bolanle is Baba Segi’s newest wife and the only one who is a university graduate. Baba Segi is very proud that a woman with a degree has chosen to join his household, but he is growing concerned about the fact that she has not yet conceived a child – after all, he has already had seven children with his other wives, so what is the problem with Bolanle?
This novel by Lola Shoneyin shows us what it is like to be part of a polygamous marriage and how Baba Segi’s wives feel about it. There are chapters narrated by all four wives and also Baba Segi himself, giving us a range of different perspectives and insights. These alternating narratives allow us to explore the complex relationships between the four women and their husband. As the title suggests, the wives all have secrets in their pasts and not everything is quite as it seems on the surface.
The position of each wife within the family, as well as her personal background, seems to determine the way she reacts to the arrival of Bolanle. The first and third wives, Iya Segi and Iya Femi, are very cruel and hostile towards her, but through their own narratives we gradually learn more about them and why they behave the way they do. They are suspicious of her education; they are jealous because with each new wife the amount of time they can spend with Baba Segi is decreased – and of course, with each new addition to the family, there’s a greater chance of their secrets being discovered.
I found it confusing that we weren’t always told who was narrating each chapter. If the characters had all been given distinct voices of their own I would have had no difficulty working out who was speaking, but they just weren’t distinctive enough for me – I thought Iya Segi and Iya Femi in particular sounded very similar. Sometimes I was halfway through a chapter before it became obvious who the narrator was. I can see why the author decided to write from different perspectives, but something as simple as stating the narrator’s name at the start of each chapter would have avoided any confusion.
Although it deals with some serious subjects, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is written in a very light, humorous style and I’m sure this book would be enjoyed by a wide range of readers. And yet, while I did find it an interesting and entertaining read, I think I would prefer to read a more serious novel on this topic. This was a good book rather than a great one, I think – or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it.