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

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.

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love is a book about childbirth and motherhood. Before I go any further I should point out that I am not a mother myself and was uncertain as to whether or not I should read this book. But after seeing some positive reviews by other readers, not all of them mothers, I decided to give it a try.

The novel consists of four separate storylines, one set in the past, two in the present day, and one in the future, covering a wide range of different aspects of pregnancy and childbirth. At first there doesn’t appear to be much of a connection between the four, but eventually the links become clear.

We begin in 19th century Vienna, where Ignaz Semmelweis has been forced into an asylum. He is convinced that, as a doctor, he is responsible for the murder of hundreds of mothers and is tortured by nightmares and visions of blood and death. In 2009, we meet Michael Stone, an author who has written a book about Semmelweis. And also in 2009, Brigid Hayes is pregnant with her second child and planning a home birth. The final thread of the story takes place in the year 2153 and is in the form of an interview with a prisoner known only as Prisoner 730004. A woman has given birth, something which is no longer allowed, and her friends have been arrested and questioned.

This all sounded very interesting, so I’m sorry to have to say that this book wasn’t really a success with me at all! I found it very difficult to connect with any of the characters, though I suspect that if I had given birth myself I would have felt more empathy with Brigid. But I don’t think that was the only problem. I expected to at least be interested in the historical sections but I struggled with those too. I didn’t want to give up on the book though, because I wanted to find out how the four stories were related and how the author would bring them all together at the end.

I did enjoy the futuristic storyline at first, with its vision of a dystopian future where strict birth control regulations have been introduced to deal with overpopulation, where even the use of words like “mother” and “child” have been banned. If that could be considered a believable picture of the world 150 years into the future, then it’s very frightening to think about. After a while, though, I started to get bored with the interview format and repetitive questions and answers, which was disappointing because these parts of the book could potentially have been my favourites.

On a more positive note, I did like Joanna Kavenna’s writing and I was impressed by the way she created a different style and atmosphere for each section of the book, appropriate to the time period in which it was set. I would be happy to try other books by Kavenna, but this one just wasn’t right for me.

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne

The Swimmer is a beautifully written novel by Roma Tearne set in the small English town of Orford in Suffolk. It’s the story of Ria, a forty-three-year-old poet, and Ben, a young refugee from Sri Lanka.

Ria is a single woman who lives alone in Eel House, a cottage which once belonged to her uncle. She’s quite happy to be there on her own; if she needs company there’s Eric, an older man from the neighbouring farm, and her brother and his family visit occasionally too – although these visits aren’t entirely welcome. Sometimes, though, life can be lonely for Ria. After a few failed relationships in the past she’s almost given up hope of finding someone to love…until she discovers Ben swimming in the river behind her house.

Ben, a Tamil refugee, left Sri Lanka to escape from the violence there. His asylum application has not yet been processed and so he’s living and working in Britain as an illegal immigrant. Although he’s eighteen years younger than Ria and from an entirely different background, the two begin to fall in love.

I really liked the first section of this book and enjoyed watching Ria and Ben’s relationship slowly develop. I thought the rest of the novel would continue in the same way, but then something happened which I wasn’t prepared for. The plot started to go in another direction, there was a new narrator to get used to, and I felt as if I was reading a completely different book to the one I had been expecting. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, though; the second part of the book was interesting, moving and relevant and the narrator was a more passionate person than Ria.

The third, and shortest, section of the book also switches narrator and again took me by surprise. Although I found the third narrator difficult to like, I thought seeing things from this person’s point of view helped to pull the story together and set up a perfect ending to the book.

I was impressed by Roma Tearne’s wonderfully descriptive writing and the way she portrayed the hot summer days in Orford and the Suffolk landscape with its marshlands and rivers. I particularly liked the references to the eels in the rivers which migrate from the Sargasso Sea (‘swimmers’, like Ben). But at times there was too much description, too much detail, which made the story move at a very slow pace.

I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this book because before I started it I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. I can imagine that if you’ve read a lot of other novels about immigration and refugees you might find this book unoriginal and contrived, but I haven’t read much fiction on this subject so The Swimmer did leave me with a few things to think about.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

The Invisible Bridge begins in 1937 and follows the fortunes of three Hungarian Jewish brothers – Andras, Tibor and Matyas Levi – as they try to survive in a Europe torn apart by World War II. At the beginning of the book, Andras is preparing to leave Budapest and go to Paris to study architecture. Soon after his arrival in France, Andras meets Klara Morgenstern, a woman nine years older than himself, a ballet teacher with a teenage daughter. Andras and Klara fall in love, but Klara has secrets in her past – secrets that she would prefer not to share with Andras.

Andras and Klara’s story is played out against a backdrop of wartime Paris, Budapest, Ukraine and parts of the Hungarian countryside. The complex relationship between Andras and Klara is always at the heart of the novel but to dismiss this book as just another romance is unfair because it’s so much more than that.

Despite reading a lot of novels set during World War II, this is the first one I’ve read that is told from a Hungarian perspective. Hungary was allied with Germany which meant this story approached things from a slightly different angle than most other books I’ve read about the war and as I knew almost nothing about the role Hungary played, I was able to learn a lot from this book. And of course, because Andras and his family are Jews the novel is very much from a Jewish viewpoint. We see how it grew increasingly dangerous to be a Jew living in wartime Europe and how the Levi family became desperate to escape to safety. And when eventually Hungary finds itself under German occupation, we see that the Hungarian Jews fared no better than Jews elsewhere in Europe.

I enjoyed this book but it wasn’t perfect. There were times when I thought the balance between the romance storyline and the war aspect wasn’t quite right. And some of the characters needed more depth. I really liked Andras at first as he was a character who was easy to like and sympathise with, but as the story went on I started to find him a little bit too perfect and after spending more than 600 pages with him I wished he’d had a few flaws just to make him more interesting. I also think it would have been a nice touch if part of the book had been written from another character’s point of view. Not really a criticism of the book – I just think it would have added another dimension to the story and with the book being so epic in scope, the opportunity was there to do this.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the length! I’m usually quite happy to immerse myself in a long book but unlike some stories which do take a long time to tell, I thought this one could easily have been a lot shorter. My attention started to wander somewhere in the middle of the book when a lot of time was spent describing Andras’s life in the forced labour service (Jews were no longer allowed to serve in the actual Hungarian army but instead were expected to do jobs such as felling trees and clearing minefields) but things did pick up again over the last hundred pages.

In fact, the final section of the book, with its descriptions of life in Budapest towards the end of the war is so compelling and filled with so much tension, it made it worth sticking with the book through the less interesting chapters in the middle. And of course, I was genuinely worried for some of the characters so I had to keep reading to make sure they survived to the end of the book! I thought Orringer did a good job of keeping us in suspense wondering who would live or die and despite the few minor negative points I’ve mentioned above, I loved The Invisible Bridge.

The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone

In a hotel room in Wanting, a town on the borders of China and Burma, Na Ga is about to commit suicide. But when she’s interrupted by the hotel receptionist who tells her that her companion, Mr Jiang, has killed himself, Na Ga decides not to die just yet. Staying on alone in the hotel, she looks back on the circumstances that have led her to Wanting and begins to consider what she wants from her future.

Wendy Law-Yone instantly grabbed my attention with this fascinating and intriguing opening. The first chapter alone raised so many questions. Who is Na Ga and what is she doing in Wanting? What terrible things had happened in her life to cause her to want to kill herself? We do find out the answers to these questions, but only very slowly as Na Ga’s tragic story gradually unfolds.

We learn that Na Ga was born into Burma’s Wild Lu tribe and sold into slavery by her parents. From there, things go from bad to worse until she eventually ends up in Bangkok with her American lover, Will, who arranges for her to travel back to the village of her birth. The only problem is that Na Ga isn’t sure if she wants to go or not…and after years of conflict and unrest in Burma she doesn’t even know if her village still exists.

As you will have guessed, this is quite a bleak story but thankfully it’s not entirely without humour and lightness. Some of the lighter moments are provided by the character of Minzu, the happy, kind-hearted sixteen-year-old receptionist at the hotel in Wanting. Minzu is one of the few people who offers Na Ga genuine friendship and she brings a glimmer of hope and optimism to an otherwise harrowing story.

Na Ga herself could be a frustrating character at times, failing to take control of her own destiny and seeming to just accept all the bad things that happened to her, but I could see that much of her personality had been shaped by the abuse and neglect she was forced to endure over the years. She’d never had the freedom to choose what she wanted to do with her life. But while I did have a lot of sympathy for Na Ga, I was left feeling that I never really got to know her. I think the structure of the novel, interspersing the present day storyline with glimpses of Na Ga’s past, may have prevented me from becoming as fully absorbed in her story as I would have liked.

The Road to Wanting left me feeling saddened and angered. Some of the things that Na Ga experiences and witnesses are shocking and by the end of the novel I could understand what had driven her to consider suicide. The lack of connection I felt with Na Ga as a character is the only negative thing I can say about this excellent book.

Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson

This moving and thought-provoking novel by Emma Henderson introduces us to a girl called Grace Williams. Grace was born with severe disabilities and a childhood case of polio only makes things worse. When she is eleven years old, her parents send her to the Briar Mental Institute, a residential home for disabled people. Unfortunately it’s the 1950s, a less enlightened time than today, but Grace is lucky in that she does meet a few people at The Briar who can see past her disabilities and who offer her friendship and love. One of these is Daniel Smith, a boy who has problems of his own – he suffers from epilepsy and has also lost both of his arms in an accident. But although life at The Briar is not easy, Grace and Daniel form a relationship that helps to sustain them both.

Grace comes across as an observant, funny, loving young woman trapped by her own inability to communicate and her physical appearance, both of which lead to her being dismissed and shunned by society. But the fact that Grace’s narrative voice is so clear and articulate shows that she is not lacking in intelligence and awareness. She doesn’t have a problem understanding what other people are saying; she just finds it hard to express herself verbally, always responding in sentences of no more than two words (“me too” or “yes, please”). And yet because of her limited speech many people assume she’s not able to follow a conversation – and so they talk about her as if she wasn’t a human being with feelings, as if she wasn’t even there, which is all very sad.

Even sadder are the reactions of Grace’s family – the shame and frustration of her parents, the matter of fact way in which her little sister, Sarah, tells a friend that she has ‘two sisters but one of them doesn’t count’ (a scene which really broke my heart). Other bloggers have mentioned that Emma Henderson explained in her author’s note how this and other episodes of the story were based on her own memories and experiences of having a sister who, like Grace, spent many years in an institution. I’m disappointed that my copy of the book didn’t include this note from the author as I would have liked to have known about the inspiration behind the story.

The descriptions of the way the Briar residents were treated by their nurses and teachers are shocking. Although there were a few who did show some kindness and compassion, many of the others were cruel, unkind and displayed a complete lack of interest in even trying to understand the people they were supposed to be caring for. Unfortunately some went even further, abusing their positions of authority and taking advantage of the vulnerable people under their care. As you can imagine, some parts of the book are emotionally quite difficult and uncomfortable to read, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bleak and depressing book because it’s really not. However hard things may be for Grace, there are still positive things in her life – the most important of these being her friendship with Daniel.

I really loved the character of Daniel: intelligent, caring, full of hope and optimism. And yet he does still have moments where everything becomes too much for him. He has a very sad and tragic story of his own, a story which moved me in a way that even Grace’s didn’t. Although Grace is the narrator and central character of the book, I never felt quite the same connection with her that I did with Daniel.

I can’t say I loved this book, but I’m glad I read it and I know it’s not a story that will be easily forgotten. I’m sure the things I’ve read will stay with me for years to come. So if you’d like to know what Grace Williams has to say, then pick up a copy of this book and find out.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I’m not sure how to begin describing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad to you, but I’ll do my best! I’ll start by saying that it’s an original and imaginative novel which revolves around a large number of different characters, most of whom are involved in the music industry in some way (be it as musicians, producers, record label owners, publicists, or music lovers). The main theme of the book is time and Egan uses her characters to explore what happens to us as we age and how life doesn’t always turn out the way we hoped it would.

I don’t know exactly how many characters there were in this book, but it felt like hundreds! Two of the most important are Bennie Salazar, a record executive, and his assistant, Sasha. Most of the other characters are somehow connected to either Sasha or Bennie, whether directly or indirectly. We meet new people in almost every chapter and I found I needed to pay attention to every new name as even someone who seemed completely insignificant could reappear later in the book.

Each chapter is written in a distinct style and has its own unique feel. One chapter takes the form of a celebrity interview; another is presented as a PowerPoint slideshow. Some chapters have a first person narrator; others are told in the second or third person; we move from past tense to present tense, from one country to another and backwards and forwards in time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author incorporate so many different styles and ideas into one novel – which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your personal preferences. If you like books that are adventurous, innovative and different, then you’re probably going to love A Visit from the Goon Squad. If not, you might find it all a little bit confusing and overwhelming like I did.

Many of the chapters seemed more like self-contained short stories than part of a novel and although each one is linked to the others in some way, I thought the book felt too disjointed. For me this made the experience of reading it quite uneven – there were some parts that I really enjoyed and some that just didn’t interest me at all. The air of experimentation, along with the PowerPoint presentation and the futuristic world portrayed in the final section, made the whole book feel very ‘modern’ and this is maybe another reason why it didn’t really work for me. I suppose I just prefer novels which have a more conventional structure, less jumping around in time and place, and a stronger plot.

A Visit from the Goon Squad sounded fascinating and I can see why a lot of people would love it – it’s a very unusual book which sparkles with originality and creativity – but it turned out not to be my type of book at all.