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Poet Lola Shoneyin makes her fiction debut with 'The Secret Lives of Babi Segi’s Wives', a perceptive, entertaining, and eye-opening novel about polygamy in modern-day Nigeria. Is it really about polygamy? Or a tragedy? or a comedy? Perhaps tragic comedy?
Thoroughly enjoyed the language and the free flowing nature of the writing in this book with themed compact chapters which pack details in a few sentences. An early metaphor for Baba Segi? I vividly remember growing up and calling a neighbour "so and so's father" rather than "Mr. so and so." There is a difference !
The drama unfolds with the arrival of the young, fourth wife, Bolanle, who is fresh from university. Perhaps we should have chosen another word for fresh but could not help ourselves for Shoneyin is more brutal than that in her descriptions of the reality of the new marriage. "Being a graduate does not make you beautiful" Bolanle is told. The word 'pounding' is normally followed by 'yam' or anything else in your head, but that will soon change after you read about Baba Segi. And you will laugh out loud on the train before settling down.
Each of Baba Segi's wives have fill the page and occupy as much space as possible in both their homestead and marriage. The wives all display the usual human behaviours when presented with constraints and find room for ambition. Who gets their way in the end?
As society demands, bearing children is the first demand on the new wife, Bolanle. After that, jostling for position and a purpose beyond Baba Segi occupies Iya Segi, Iya Tope and Iya Femi. Can they work towards the same goal now that they find themselves in this situation?
Shoneyin is a spell-binding story teller, holding our attention as we learn how each woman ended in the Baba Segi household, their attutudes and how they fit in. This is a light book punctuated by the some tragedies along the way. The narrator focuses on the facts and paints a complete picture , with a seemingly apathetic and distant voice. Somehow, this makes the book even better!
Proverbs and daily sayings are apt in this novel and always capture not only the message but the mood of the characters. Iya Tope's daughters were born "with eyes in their stomach" and hold their own in a society that wants boys.
Traditional beliefs, sorcery, both imagined and real, and religion all play a role mirroring post-independence societies dealing with their own beliefs and imports. Thunder and Lightning strike Bolanle. "Where hast thou been, sister?"
Iya Femi could have easily replied, "Killing swine." The expected competition in the household come to the fore.
Meanwhile, Baba Segi bumbles, plods and stumbles along until events put him right in the centre he had always been in. "The only thing God has not blessed me with is twins," Baba Segi observes. Does Baba Segi get "his foot caught in the snare he had laid for the antelope?"
The misadentures, struggles, rivalries, intricate family politics, and the interplay of personalities and relationships within the complex private world of a polygamous union are all laid bare in this brilliant novel which will be a fascinating play to see. The novel is is being made into a film by netflix. " Yam cannot cook itself," but Lola Shoneyin has certainly cooked one with this fabulous novel.