Book Review: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

Hey all! This has taken me quite a while to upload because my internet connection has been VERY tenuous for the past few days (ahh the joys of student halls, right?). But I finished Baba Segi last week and can finally do this review, so let’s get to it! I read this book as part of the Continent Read-a-thon Challenge.

*WARNING: this review WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS! For the spoiler-free version, please check out my Goodreads review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1191339567  *

Baba Segi has three wives (now four with the arrival of Bolanle). There’s:

Iya Segi, the “original” wife who rules the house and knows how to gently twist her husband around to her way of thinking.

Iya Tope, the second wife who was given to Baba Segi as a sort of compensation by her father after their crops (the crops that Baba Segi was going to buy) failed. She is very quiet and mousey, and tries to stay in the background.

Iya Femi, the third wife who threw herself at Baba Segi’s feet in order to escape her life of servitude with a wealthy family. She can be cruel and ruthless and will do anything to make sure she and her children have the best.

Bolanle, the newest wife and the only educated one. It’s a complete mystery why she married Baba Segi until later on in the book. What’s NOT a secret is how much the other wives despise her and scheme to get her out of their house.

The book actually turned out far better than I expected. It’s a story about polygamy and family, and the secrets that we are sometimes forced to keep from those closest to us. Baba Segi is desperate for more children – hence why he took another wife when he already has three – but a couple of years after their wedding Bolanle is still not pregnant. I should point out here that all the wives are known as Iya followed by the name of their first child. Baba Segi is Baba followed by the name of his first child. Bolanle is still known by her real name because she doesn’t yet have children.

Irritated by the lack of babies, Baba Segi frequents some kind of bar or café in the…seedy part of town. The men there all gather together to listen to his woes and offer advice. Baba Segi decided to take Bolanle to a hospital to get to the root of her fertility problems because, as an “educated woman”, he knew (or rather was told and then pretended he knew) that she would listen to a proper doctor far more than any “herbal” doctors or more…traditional “medicine men”.

The book switches perspectives between all the wives and Baba Segi, and it took me a couple of chapters to realise this. It’s never overtly stated which wife is talking at which point but after you’ve come to know the wives personalities you can easily tell which one is talking. Iya Segi and Iya Femi are cruel and cunning, while Iya Tope is weak and unable to stand up for herself let alone Bolanle. The wives believe they can force Bolanle out of the house if they are cruel enough, but the harsher they are the more determined Bolanle is to make them accept her. I have to admit, I didn’t like Bolanle. She was pretty dense considering she has a college education (although I admit, going to university doesn’t mean you have common sense or “street smarts” or anything), and, while she is certainly determined, I have no idea why she’d even want to be there let alone actively try to make them accept her into the family. I don’t like the other wives either – Iya Femi is a complete…female dog…and Iya Segi isn’t much better. Iya Tope is kinder than them but really is just spineless so her kindness doesn’t make much difference to anyone’s life. Baba Segi is pretty vile to be honest, and mostly unable to control his bodily functions in stressful situations. Iya Femi’s kids (two boys) are brats just like their mother, and Iya Tope’s kids (three girls) are wet blankets just like THEIR mother. The only characters I really like in this are Iya Segi’s children. Segi is the oldest, and, while she largely ignores Bolanle at the start under orders from her mother, they seem to bond slightly later. Iya Segi’s son is a really nice kid (basically the only nice, seemingly well-balanced child/person in the whole book) and he tries to help Bolanle even when his mother is growling at him.

Most of the book is a lot of animosity between the wives, and Baba Segi and Bolanle agonising over the fertility troubles. We then find out why Bolanle feels so guilty – she was raped when she was a teenager and became pregnant. It’s assumed through the book, even by Bolanle, that the rape was when the child was conceived but as she also admits to sleeping with the son of her wealthy landlords regularly it’s possible it could be his. That’s certainly his train of thought as, when she tells him she’s pregnant, he panics and takes her to a backstreet abortionist because “if a friend of his father’s sees them in a hospital together then all hell would break loose” or something along those lines. And she lets him… Now I’m not victim blaming or anything, and yes she was young, but the guy literally said she should be going to hospital for this but she won’t because it would look bad for him to be sleeping with the commoners and she went with it. Of course, no one knows about the rape. That’s also apparently why she married Baba Segi even though she has a degree and could do anything she wanted – she wanted someone to be telling her what to do so she didn’t have to think.

The second half of the book gets FAR more interesting. Bolanle sees a fertility specialist who (of course) asks her if she’s ever had an abortion and she says yes and Baba Segi is distraught because he thought she was “pure” but now she’s “sullied”. However…THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH BOLANLE’S REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEM! Nothing at all. Funny that, hmm? So they test Baba Segi (although at this point they haven’t told him any of their findings). Meanwhile, the wives are doing their best to get Bolanle kicked out, including putting an animal’s head in Baba Segi’s room and then saying Bolanle did it? This leads to him almost strangling her before he decides that, actually, it’s not the kind of thing Bolanle would do. But then they go too far.

Iya Segi and Iya Femi decide to POISON Bolanle to get her out once and for all. They put poison in her portion of the food and leave it outside her door as per usual. Only, Bolanle doesn’t feel hungry so instead she gives it to Segi. Yep. You guessed it. Iya Segi has now poisoned her own daughter. Things move fairly rapidly now. Segi goes to hospital, is in intensive care for a few days, everyone mopes and looks generally grief-stricken, Iya Tope and Bolanle are the only ones functioning because the other two are feeling guilty as hell (although I noted that they only feel guilty about SEGI – they don’t seem to be feeling too guilty for trying to poison Bolanle or for thinking of the poison in the first place, only that Segi got poisoned instead), but Segi comes home (although she is still very ill) and we discover that Baba Segi has no swimmers. None. It’s not a low sperm count. Literally none. There is no way he could’ve fathered seven children. And now we have flashbacks from all of the wives about the men they slept with (i.e. the children’s real fathers). Iya Tope slept with the meat seller (and apparently paid him), and Iya Femi slept with the son of her old mistress (with the intention of one day going back and parading the illegitimate grandchildren in front of her. This plan went south when the woman died and her son moved away). Iya Segi was the best though – she had been sleeping with her husband’s loyal driver (and then we have a chapter from him telling that story).

So Segi finds out from her mother that the poison was intentionally added to the food (although she is reassured that it wasn’t meant for her…), the doctors ask to see Baba Segi’s wife so he takes Iya Segi, and she informs the doctors that the only reason Baba Segi has children is because his wives cheated on him (he was in the room for this bit). Oh dear. Segi, as if sensing that all the secrets have been spilled, dies. I was actually sad at this bit. I was also pretty moved when Baba Segi, even though he’s really angry because none of his children are his, gives Iya Segi’s son a lovely speech about how he’s a good kid and will be a great man.

And that’s pretty much it! The wives beg Baba Segi to forgive them, and he does (after taking Iya Segi’s shop and Iya Femi’s jewels and makeup. I don’t think he took anything from Iya Tope. Maybe he realised that she was pretty easily led and not the kind to do it again). Bolanle decides to make peace with her past (after ruining their somewhat happy family, I must say) and leaves, and the driver leaves also. And that’s it!

While I disliked most of the characters in this book, I really enjoyed the writing. Shoneyin is very good at making you really picture a place or a scene, and it was a good mix of funny and serious. Ultimately there was a pretty happy ending for everyone I guess (apart from poor Segi). I really enjoyed the switch in perspectives too, especially after you’d gotten to know the characters – you could instantly tell who was talking from about a third of the way through. Overall I give this book 3.5 out of 5, maybe even a 4 if the characters hadn’t annoyed me so much.

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