Monday, 21 March 2011
Orange 2011: The secret lives of Baba Segi's wives (Lola Shoneyin)
I am the lucky recipient of a number of the Orange longlist titles from some kind publishers, and when they've all trickled in, I shall treat you to a picture of them. But, as soon as the longlist was announced, I was suddenly excited to read some contemporary women's fiction, and knew that I would fall on whichever one landed on my doorstep first. That title was The secret lives of Baba Segi's wives by Lola Shoneyin and I'm happy to report that it got my Orange 2011 reading off to an excellent start.
This captivating domestic tale, set in Nigeria, is the story of Baba Segni and his four wives. We meet them shortly after the fourth wife has joined the family; Bolanle is somewhat different to the other three wives, being a university graduate. But, she isn't exempt from the need to provide her husband with children. The other wives have managed it, so why can't she? Is it because she had an abortion after being raped as a teenager?
Bolanle is a likeable character, rather more so than the other three wives or Baba Segni - perhaps it was because I identified with her as a university graduate, and felt for her plight in supposedly letting her husband down. The book is narrated by different wives in turn, as well as Baba Segni and his driver, which was a little confusing at times and it didn't make the other wives stand out as clearly in my mind, but it worked well as a story-telling device.
What I liked about this book, apart from the fact that I didn't work out how the story would resolve itself until very near to the end, was the insight it gave into the dynamics of a polygamous marriage - the relationships between the wives is understandably tense at times but there are also occasional moments of mutual support, such as when Bolanle is able to use her superior life-knowledge to assist another wife who is suffering greatly from constipation. It is at times comic, so even if my western perspective on polygamy and women's freedom made me recoil in horror from the concept of polygamy, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the episodes in the book. The blend of humour with the story was just right.
I haven't read enough of the other books to say whether I think it is shortlist/prizewinner material or not, but I will stick my neck out to say that it is such an enjoyable read that it is worth seeking out even if it doesn't make it into the final cut.
Many thanks to Anne-Marie from Serpent's Tail for providing me with my copy.