03 August 2011
My Thoughts on Lola Shoneyin, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives
Title:The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives
Author: Lola Shoneyin
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Literary Fiction
Where I got it: From the publisher for review
Lola Shoneyin's book was originally published in hardcover as The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives (this is what I read), but has recently been released in paperback in the US as The Secret Lives of the Four Wives. Baba Segi is, as the back cover of the book describes him, "a plump, vain, and prosperous middle-aged man of robust appetites." He also has four wives, including his youngest, the college aged Bolanle who is the focus of most of the narrative as she quests to learn why she is barren. As the title indicates, the wives are keeping a secret from their "patriarch," a man for whom children are the greatest currency. The reader learns the secret relatively early in the book, and Shoneyin utilizes dramatic irony well as we wait for the characters to learn what we already know. I won't tell you all the secret, but I will tell you that it is pretty scandalous.
The narrative is told from multiple points of view- all of the wives, Baba Segi, third person, first person, even in the point of view of the family driver. This, by the way, drove me nuts. I found the shifting points of view to be distracting. I never got to know any of the characters - with the exception perhaps of Bolanle and Baba Segi- to be able to clearly distinguish their voices, and I would spend the beginning of each chapter wondering who was speaking. Maybe I'm just daft, but what I really wanted was to get to know a character, and stay with them throughout the book.
Bonlanle was the most sympathetic character to me, but in the end Baba Segi is kind of tragic and sympathetic as well. There were some dark, Shakespearean elements in the book, which are interesting. Something is certainly rotten in Baba Segi's home. I was surprised by how visceral the narrative was, with its descriptions of bodily functions and such. There are also some disturbing scenes of violence against women- verbal and physical. However, the women in this book do violence unto one another as well. The relationships portrayed in the novel and how the society conceptualized the family were the most interesting aspects.
In the end, I never really connected with the narrative. I considered giving up on the book, but eventually came back to it and finished. There are plot elements that push the reader along, but I didn't feel the emotional weight that the narrative should have had. I don't always need to connect with a character to feel that, but I do need to learn to understand them, and I can't do that when the narrative feels distracted.