When I get hold of a book to read, I usually read the synopsis on the back cover and quotes from literary reviews. The brief synopsis of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives did not give much away but there was something about it that made me think I might have heard of a similar story in real life. The story starts with a narrative in the third person, an introduction to the Alao family also known as Baba Segi’s household. The reader is made aware of what the problem is – New and fourth wife Bolanle is apparently the source of patriarch, Baba Segi’s bellyache. Much later, the readers find out how black comedic and ironic it is to nurse a bellyache for one’s own problems when one thinks the source of the problem comes from another.
Shoneyin tells her story well. The pacing is brilliant. At first the reader squirms, yearning for questions to be answered: like why would Bolanle a young graduate choose to marry Baba Segi, a middle aged semi-illiterate polygamist? The reader’s unease at this point is a mixture of curiosity and tension, a tension that works to a climax within the plot of the story itself. The reader’s squirming stops at the appropriate point in the tale for those questions to be answered. Other elements of nail biting tension are added to the plot just as the reader thinks they know it all. The editing is excellent and structure is tight, particularly with the challenge of the story being told from seven different points of view.
The skills employed using seven different POVs to reveal the web of secrets at the centre of the plot is the gem that makes Shoneyin a credible, enviable voice in contemporary African fiction. The story is told from the point of view of all the major characters: Baba Segi, Taju the driver, Bolanle and the other three wives. The third person narrative acts as a bridge at specific points in the story to keep the reader up to date with the bigger picture. Language – accessible, dramatic and lyrical play to Shoneyin’s strengths as a poet. Bawdy humour exposing gritty realism of day-to-day life in the Alao enclave is appropriate given the socio-economic class of most characters and the cultural context of a polygamous household.
Without doubt, drawbacks of patriarchy within Yoruba culture and impact on the lives of people living within it take centre stage in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. None of the characters escape the choking tentacles of patriarchy. Baba Segi is protected in the complex web of deceit and societal ‘grace’ that his role as patriarch affords him. However as events unfold, the reader realises that he is also caught within its trap and limited by it. In this way, feminism weaves its unique strand of psychology into the reader’s thinking: men can also be victims of oppressive patriarchy. Unlike the other wives, Bolanle walks free. But even she pays a price for her freedom. The message is clear – women in such a society while being victims of a rigid patriarchal system must decide their own fate: to manipulate the tenets of patriarchy and collude with its oppressions or redefine their own identity while embracing a new found freedom. The conclusion seems to be that there is always a price to pay.
My only criticism of this engaging book would be that people from other cultures unfamiliar with the politics and setting of a polygamous household, might find the various points of view confusing. This could have been easily rectified by titling all relevant chapters with characters’ names so that it is clear who is telling their story. Regardless of this issue, the narrative told from various points of view is a strength, not a weakness.
I was right about my initial hunch. I had been told a similar story of a polygamous household in the mid 80s. There is however one indisputable fact – Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives packs in excess of a punch more.
©Adura Ojo. April 2011