The Secret Lives of Babu Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin
4 stars - Strongly recommended by Kate
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Guest review by Kate Vane
Baba Segi is worried. His first three wives have had seven children between them but his fourth wife has yet to get pregnant. He decides to take action. Being, in his own eyes, a considerate man, he decides to humour his graduate wife, Bolanle, and seek help from a doctor, rather than a herbalist or a prophet.
So begins the story of a polygamist household in Nigeria. Bolanle is already resented by the first three wives. Before she arrived, the household had an uneasy equilibrium. This development threatens to upset the whole family.
The title of this book nicely captures the ambiguity of the story – the four women are defined by their status as wife but each has her own world and her own secret. The wives tell their own stories in alternating chapters, while Babu Segi is narrated in the third person, making them the protagonists and him a bystander.
The book avoids easy judgements and stereotypes. Babu Segi is not a brute. He is clumsy but caring. He has unappealing habits and a sensitive bowel. He plays the master of the house but is blissfully – or wilfully - unaware of the struggles for power and the small daily cruelties that go on around him.
The women show Babu Segi almost comical levels of deference while they plot and scheme, but whatever the challenges of the marriage, their experiences to date have taught them that life could be much worse.
They are strong and they have suffered. They have experienced poverty and abuse but they narrate their stories with energy and earthy humour. They speak in direct language disrupted by startling imagery and vivid colour.
All of life is here, pain and laughter, evil and absurdity. Some of what happens is truly shocking but is also understandable. What shines through is the determination of the women to survive, to wring some happiness from life, even if that means inflicting harm on others. This is a beautiful and unsettling book.
Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End.