I read Lola Shoneyin's debut novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives so quickly that it didn't even make it onto my 'Currently Reading' list. It's a very gulp-able type of book, with thinly-sliced chapters that lend themselves to being read in 10 minute tea breaks; I found I was polishing off 75 pages over the course of a single lunch hour. The speed of the reading - which makes it feel very light and zippy - very much belies the content of the novel, which is often dark and raw and stinging.
From the beginning Shoneyin plays with voice. The book opens in an omniscient mode, before switching into the first person, and from then on changing point of view character back and forth with every chapter. The POV switches are unpatterned, which is quite unusual. Most often these things are in some kind of predictable sequence, but not here; and it gives the book a forward propulsion, a vitality and life, that it might not otherwise have had.
The story is ostensibly that of Baba Segi, a middle-aged, well-built Nigerian patriarch, and his young, university-educated fourth wife Bolanle. Although they have been married for over two years they have yet to conceive a child, and since Baba Segi already has seven children by his first three wives, the blame is placed very firmly at Bolanle's door. This premise is framed in such a way that we anticipate a comic romp to come from it:
When Baba Segi awoke with a bellyache for the sixth day in a row, he knew it was time to do something drastic about his fourth wife's childlessness. He was sure the pain wasn't caused by hunger or trapped gas; it was from the build-up of months and months of worry.
The very idea of Baba Segi and the way his large, ample body responds physically to worry - with tummy aches and bowel rumblings - is a mark of eccentricity that thoroughly fictionalises and neutralises any danger in him. It disarms you into thinking that this is going to be one of those bumbly novels, in which a character passes through successive coincidences and humiliations until they emerge triumphant and remade. It's a very clever little trick to put you off your guard; it certainly worked on me.
Having sought advise from 'Teacher' - a semi-mystic whisky-peddling, brothel-haunting eunuch who also fits the comic mode - Baba Segi decides the best course of action is to use Bolanle's education to find a cure. No witch-doctor potions for her, no, no. He will take her to the hospital and find a medical solution that will satisfy her. Off they toddle, and its all a little silly with Baba Segi asserting his masculinity and being humbled by strong-minded nurses. But it soon emerges that Bolanle's apparent infertility is the least of Baba Segi's problems: like all the women in his life, she has deeply held secrets. For a start, right there in the hospital, she admits to having had an abortion in her teens. It is the first in a long line of revelations that send Baba Segi running for the nearest toilet to ease his gripes, and it shifts the register of the novel sharply away from comedy, and towards tragedy.
Quite unbeknownst to Baba Segi his house is a seething pot of (literally) murderous jealousy, hatred and fury. Iya Segi and Iya Femi, the first and third wives respectively, disdain Iya Tope, the second wife, and they despise Bolanle with a wretched fury. They don't like each other very much either, but form an uneasy alliance based on the philosophy that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The novel considers very carefully what it might mean to be a wife in this polygamous household: in terms of competition for resources, attention and security. The wives live in a siege-like state, each one primed for a move for precedence or privilege on the part of any of the others. It is a deeply political and strategic game; the arrival of Bolanle upset the uneasy peace between the first three and now it is all out war.
What they all, unwittingly, share in common is their 'secret lives': the histories that have brought them together under Baba Segi's roof. None of them are really there for love of him, or of their own volition. Iya Segi's marriage gave her the freedom to pursue her own business dreams - she runs an empire of cement shops and keeps the money to herself; Iya Tope was given to Baba by her father as a token of appeasement after a disappointing grain harvest; and Iya Femi escaped a life of drudgery and powerlessness as a servant. For Bolanle, Baba Segi is also an escape - all her hopes and academic successes have been ruined and expunged by the memory of a vicious rape when she was fifteen years old. She is hungry for a simple life of abasement and quiet. All four of the wives' share terrifying narratives of loss, revenge, suffering and loneliness, which interweave with the central (comic) infertility strand of the novel, building towards the revelation of their biggest secret of all.
It is masterfully done. I very much admire how Shoneyin has written a gut-wrenching book under the guise of comedy; it thoroughly undercuts the dominant stereotypes of African fiction published in Britain. In my experience 'African novels' are marketed as falling into either one of just two categories: either they are books about funny, eccentric characters in funny, eccentric 'cultural' circumstances, or novels about Serious Issues which tap into (entirely justified) Western guilt about colonialism and racism. That's a vast generalisation, I know, but it seems generally true to me. What The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives does so successfully is give us one thing - the comic foil - while slapping us hard with the other. It reminded me quite forcibly of the way Petina Gappah disguises the sorrow and pain and horror of her character's lives in the stories of An Elegy for Easterly with the winsome face of their funny side. My only complaint is that the ending seems a bit too neat, and the enormous sacrifice required of Baba Segi's family is too great to bring about the lacklustre denouement of Bolanle's story arc. But that is a problem of overall balance which I can readily forgive in the light of sharp, dark-light detail of Shoneyin's writing.
As for it's position on the Orange Prize longlist? Well, I would be surprised to see it on the shortlist next week, but that isn't to say I think it has no chance. I wonder if it is one of those books that grows on a second reading, when you've understood what the whole will look like and so can concentrate on its constituent parts. I'll certainly be looking forward to Shoneyin's second book; she's a writer to watch I think.
This book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher.