When Baba Segi awoke with a bellyache for the sixth day in a row, he knew it was time to do something about his fourth wife’s childlessness. He was sure the pain wasn’t caused by hunger or trapped gas; it was from the buildup of months and months of worry.
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives begins with a bellyache and a smile. Lola Shoneyin lets us know with this paragraph and plenty of other clues (Baba Segi’s second wife is “stapled” to the bed by his leg; he “reinflates” his large frame; every anxiety makes him run to the bathroom) that this is going to be one of those comic African novels. We will have cups of tea and eccentric characters and interesting cultural insights and we will poke fun, gently, at established norms until we emerge triumphant!
But wait. This turns out to be the story of Bolanle, the highly-educated fourth wife of Baba Segi, and her uneasy place among his other three wives and their children. Why did she accept this junior marriage at all? Why is Bolanle having trouble conceiving after two years of marriage, when Baba Segi has seven other children? In order to cure her barrenness, Baba Segi takes Bolanle not to the herbalist but to the place his university-educated wife will accept — the hospital. Right there in front of the doctor, the nurse, and the husband, Bolanle admits to having had an abortion in her teens. Yes, this sends Baba Segi’s guts into another gripe (funny! ha ha!) but it also sends the tone of this book spinning into a corner: dark, light, dark, light.
Bolanle, it turns out, is not the only one with secrets to hide or to reveal. Baba Segi’s home seethes with jealousy, strife, contempt, murder, and illicit love of various kinds. Each of the wives (Iya Segi, Iya Tope, and Iya Femi) had a different reason for accepting Baba Segi in marriage, and none of the reasons is exactly light-hearted, eccentric fun. Bolanle’s reason is most grueling of all: she knew she would be humbled and abased with respect to the other wives, and she welcomed it, wanting a life of quiet after being raped. These stories, these secret lives, twine around the central (comic!) infertility plot, winding up to reveal the biggest secret of the novel.
Shoneyin plays interestingly with voice in this book, as Victoria points out in her elegant review, which made me want to read this book last year. The first chapter is in third person, and then the others are in first person, shifting point of view from one wife to another and even occasionally to Baba Segi himself. The voices aren’t patterned predictably — we don’t return to Bolanle as an anchor, for instance — so we are left to really listen: who is this person? What is she saying? What does she mean? Shoneyin pursues the question of what it is like to manage the politics of a polygamous household: the small machinations loom incredibly large, and the competition for attention and resources is fierce. Women and children are everything and nothing. It is cause enough for Baba Segi to worry.
The ending of the novel continues this stripey dark-light-dark-light resolution, with an explosive, sacrificial climax and a quiet denouement. The position of power is left in question, decentralized now:
Don’t think I can’t see the challenges ahead of me. People will say I am a secondhand woman. Men will hurt and ridicule me but I won’t let them hold me back. I will remain in the land of the living. I am back now and the world is spread before me like an egg cracked open.
It’s a curiously right, off-center ending for a deft, off-center novel.