Thursday, March 31, 2011

book review: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's WivesThe backstory: The Secrets Lives of Baba Segi's Wives is one of the nine debut novels on the 2011 Orange Prize longlist.

The basics: As the title implies, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives is indeed about the four wives of Baba Segi, a wealthy Nigerian businessman. His fourth wife, Belonle, has a college education, which is a concern for the other three wives.

My thoughts: Although the reader is treated to the inner mind of all four wives, the main character is the fourth wife, Bolanle, who narrates about half of the chapters. I identified most with Bolanle too, who felt like an outsider because of her education and displays an astounding amount of tolerance and patience for how she is treated.

This novel is filled with both a yearning for softness and a gritty, raw hardness of reality. At times it is quite graphic about sex and violence, but it never felt sensationalist; it was authentic. I was fascinated by the characters and the events in the novel, but I never marveled at the construction of a sentence. It's certainly well written, but I would stop short of calling the writing literary. The magic is in the story and characters rather than the construction and language.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was engaged as I read it. I have a fascination with polygamy (well, not enough to watch Sister Wives, but enough to adore Big Love.) As a fan of Big Love, there were times when I was amazed at parallel storylines.

Fun literary fact: Shoneyin is married to the son of Wole Soyinka.

Favorite passage: "Only a foolish woman relies heavily on a man's promises."

The verdict: The Secret Lives of Babi Segi's Wives is a fascinating glimpse into modern polygamy in Nigeria. It's a fast-paced novel with remarkably fleshed out characters. Despite enjoying the story and characters, I would stop short of calling it prize-worthy. I will be eager to see what Lola Shoneyin does next.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: July 1, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Treat yourself! Buy The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (available in hardback, paperback or Kindle version.)

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  1. It sounds as though we had similar thoughts. I enjoyed reading it and identified with Bolanle the most, but although it is one of the few I've actually managed to finish I don't think it will make it onto the short list - those big, literary novels will dominate I think :-(

  2. Aarti and I did a joint review of this book awhile back, and although it was eminently readable, I didn't fall in love with it. I think there were too many scatological references, and a lot of the characters felt like caricatures to me. I was fascinated by Bolanle though, and by the bigness of her heart and spirit. I couldn't have lived the way she did! I also have a huge love of polygamy in literature and would recommend The Lonely Polygamist for something refreshingly different.

  3. I passed on this one as there have been too many books on this subject. However, like Heather, I liked The Lonely Polygamist a lot.

  4. I've encountered this book several times but have never felt compelled to pick it up. I've read several reviews lately, though, that make me think it might be an interesting read. Now if only it'll cross my path again!

  5. I'm glad to see another one that made the list is well worth my time! Looking forward to reading it soon ... I hope!

  6. Glad you liked this! I've been curious about this one since last year. I can't wait to check it out!

  7. Great review. For some reason, I thought this book was more on the "fun" side, so it's good to know it's a bit gritty.

  8. We've had similar responses to this one!

    Good to know that The Lonely Polygamist could make for an interesting reading match: I've picked it up a few times, but hadn't been sure.

    I'm really glad this made the longlist (my thoughts are here), but I don't know that it will make the shortlist either. Even though I still have more than half the longlist left to read, I think there will be others that demand more attention stylistically.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!