The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – Book Review

“Wipe your eyes,” she said, passing me a rag. “It has been a month since your parents died. This is not your home and it will never be. A girl cannot inherit her father’s house because it is everyone’s prayer that she will marry and make her husband’s home her own. This house and everything in it now belongs to your uncle. That is the way things are.” – from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, page 135 –

Bolanle is Baba Segi’s fourth wife in a polygamous marriage. She is educated and young, and is a threat to the other wives in more ways than one. When she fails to conceive a child, Baba Segi is bereft and begins to seek answers which may uncover the biggest secret his wives have kept from him yet. Told in multiple and alternating viewpoints, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives explores the polygamist society of Nigeria by gradually revealing the secrets of the women who people the novel.

Iya Segi is the first wife – large and outspoken, she is the unofficial power beneath Baba Segi’s roof. Her plan to humiliate Bolanle and drive her from their home gets lukewarm support from Iya Femi, the third wife who has vengeance on her mind and who would rather see a quicker solution to the problem.

When a plan does not go right, you plot again. One day you will get it right. One day you will be able to damage the person who hurts you so completely that they will never be able to recover. I have told Iya Segi this on several occasions. I keep telling her that we need to find a permanent solution but she does not have wisdom. – from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, page 74 –

Iya Tope is the second wife, a woman whose compassion is silenced by fear. Forced into an arranged marriage to Baba Segi, Iya Tope has learned to be humble and silent in the face of wrong doing.

As the story unfolds, the lives of each of these women intersect and come together to reveal the larger family of Baba Segi. Other characters are introduced, including Taju, the driver who also harbors a secret, and the many children who live in the house. Although Lola Shoneyin breaks up each person’s narrative by chapter, I found many of the characters’ voices to be interchangeable, and so sometimes I found myself struggling to keep all their stories straight in my mind.

Thematically, the novel probes the rights of women in a polygamist society and in Africa in general. Baba Segi is a self-important, chauvinistic man who sees Bolanle’s inability to conceive solely her fault. His view of sex is all about his own pleasure and he refers to it in crass terms. In general, sex is not portrayed as all that desirable – for the most part, it is represented as a wifely duty for the women with the point being to produce children. Sex for pleasure is largely punished and a source of guilt in the novel.

Shoneyin shows the inequality of women in her book, and all but Bolanle are portrayed as conniving, manipulative and vengeful. It made me wonder how accurate the novel is with regard to women in African society. Ultimately, Shoneyin provides for some redemption and forgiveness in her book about family secrets, betrayal, and disloyalty.

I found this to be an easy book to read. The individual stories are laced with myth, parables and folk lore. I enjoyed the gradual revealing of each character’s secret – a bit like peeling the layers off of an onion. Shoneyin managed to surprise me a bit with Baba Segi’s character who is so stereotypical at the outset, but managed to grow into a person who had depth and empathy by the end of the book.

The plot of this book is original, although the characters felt a little bit undeveloped to me. Shoneyin captures the flavor of a paternalistic society well.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was nominated for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and will appeal to readers who enjoy African literature.

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FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher who provided me with a copy of this book for review on my blog.

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  1. I’m fascinated with books about polygamy, so I’ll have to look for this one.

  2. I think I can guess a couple of plot points from your review.

    Sounds like a good story, I might like it.

    • Amused on July 20, 2011 at 20:06

    Intriguing. I have this one on my shelves so I’ll be getting to it eventually. I do like to read as many Orange Prize books as I can. I’m sorry this one wasn’t quite as good as it could have been.

  3. One doesn’t expect to find undeveloped characters and Orange Prize nomination in the same clutch of words. I am intrigued by what you have written here, and I always trust your sensibilities.

    • Aths on July 21, 2011 at 04:31

    I was fascinated with how Baba Segi’s character grew through the book. He really surprised me. I was also not sure how consistent this book is with the Nigerian culture, but it was an enjoyable read.

  4. Your review shares a lot of the opinions that I had about this book, and I enjoyed reading it. I think the one thing that bothered me the most is how the characters felt too much like caricatures and the fact that they were a little undeveloped. You are the only other person whose review I have read that also mentions the crassness of some of the language as well. Like Kathy, I have a thing for books about polygamy, so in that respect, it was satisfying, but in other respects, I wish the book had been more well rounded. This was a wonderful review. Thanks for sharing it!

    • Amy on July 22, 2011 at 09:59

    Like you I had issues with the other characters being a bit too similar in some ways. I do think the book will appeal to a wider audience which is good.

  5. I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but I think the underdeveloped characters have made it one I don’t really remember several months later. I liked it, and I’m curious to see what the author does next. All in all, I was glad it made the Orange longlist because I likely wouldn’t have read it otherwise, but it wasn’t the best of the bunch this year.

    • Amy on July 23, 2011 at 12:41

    This book sounds interesting particularly since it involves plygamy. It’s too bad the characters aren’t as developed or individual as they coulod be. But it sounds like there is a lot to enjoy about this book. and since it’s sitting on my shelf, I think I’ll give a try soon!

    • Wendy on July 23, 2011 at 18:13

    Kathy: It does give a good picture of polygamy…

    June: Hope I didn’t give too much away (I try not to give spoilers in my reviews)…hope you’ll enjoy the book!

    Amused: I actually did enjoy most of it – I just wasn’t “bowled over.”

    Beth K: Thank you! I was disappointed (and also surprised) at how similar the female characters were to each other – a little too cliched for me.

    Aths: I agree – Baba Segi turned out to be the best character in the book by far…he certainly grew the most!

    Heather: I don’t normally mind books that walk on that edge of crassness – but this one made me a bit uncomfortable. That said, like you, I did enjoy the read – I just didn’t think it was as good as it could have been…it had such potential to be one of those unforgettable books, but it didn’t dig deep enough with the characters.

    Amy of Amy Reads: I agree – I actually think this one will end up being one of those books that a lot of readers read (not just those who like literary fiction).

    Carrie: I am not sorry I read it – and, like you, I will look forward to more by this author…

    Amy of The House of Seven Tails: I’ll be interested to see how you like the book. It is not one of those books I would tell you NOT to read, for sure! It is a unique book…

    • Bonnie on July 25, 2011 at 06:13

    I have this book on my shelves TBR and it sounds like it will be an interesting read. I like books based in Africa and the folklore. I’m glad to hear that the story is told through multiple viewpoints of the wives.

    • Wendy on August 2, 2011 at 06:47

    Bonnie: I will be interested in your thoughts on it!

    • Olabisi on October 17, 2011 at 05:36

    I have recently just finished reading this book, finish it in two days, as i was hungry to find out what the next twist would be in the story. i’ve given it to a friend so we can be able to discuss onces he’s finished reading it. overall, a really easy read, which bring out different emotions at different times, however, i dont mind cliff hangers, but would have preferred to know a little more about each character. i have one question though… Was it fair to say that Iya Segi was Bi-sexual? looool

    Stay blessed All

    • Wendy on October 25, 2011 at 08:26

    Olabisi: Glad you enjoyed the book. But, I don’t understand your last sentence – I didn’t say Iya Segi was bi-sexual

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