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The Secret Lives of the Four Wives, by Lola Shoneyin.

February 11, 2015

The Secret Lives of the Four Wives, by Lola Shoneyin. William Morrow Paperbacks (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 304 pages.  (This novel has also been published with the title, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi.)

3 stars

A heart wrenching, Nigerian novel about four women all married to the same man; how each had found her way into the marriage, how they interacted and how they protected their shared secret.

Lola Shoneyin was born in Nigeria and educated in boarding schools in Great Britain. Although her parents’ marriage was not polygamous, those of her grandparents’ were. Polygamy remains widespread in Nigeria, she believes, because of how few options there are for single women.  She sees polygamy as hard on women because it pits them against each other in their attempts to gain the personal attention and favors of their husband. In choosing to write about a polygamous marriage, she hopes to bring the wives out of the shadows and reveal their distinctiveness and strengths.

In The Secret Lives, four very different women are brought together in marriage to Baba Segi. He is the chief authority in their household, and all the women seek his approval and attention. But each woman has her own past and her own story to tell.   The multi-voiced narration of the novel allows each to be heard. Each of the first three wives is referred to by the name of her first child; Iya Segi, Iya Tope, and Iya Femi.  Iya Segi is the senior wife. A strong woman, she is the power in the family. Next is Iya Tope, quiet, not overly bright but sensitive to the needs of others. Iya Femi is primarily concerned with money and the beauty she thinks she can buy with it.

Stability in the family is upset when Baba Segi marries a fourth wife, Bolande. Younger than the others, she alone is college-educated. She has suffered a disorienting trauma and is looking for a refuge where she can live quietly. Despite her efforts to be helpful to the other wives, they fear and hate her and do their best to drive her out of the household. The opening chapters of the novel focus on the abuse that the senior wives level at Bolande. I found this section painful to read.  As the narrative progresses, all of the wives tell more about their lives before marriage and why they became the wives of Baba Segi. I was moved by their stories, and liked these sections of the book best. Matters do not improve within the household, however.  When, after two years, Bolande still has not yet gotten pregnant, a series of events threatens to destroy the family by revealing secrets.

I appreciated Shoneyin’s focus on the wives rather than the institution of polygamy, but elements of novel simply seemed unreal to me. I didn’t have trouble with the fact the all of the women’s lives revolved around one man, but their specific actions sometimes seemed extreme and unfathomable.

I recommend this book to those interested in the problems of African women and their resilience in surviving them.  Additionally, I have read several novels about polygamy in Africa and India.  Each presents a different story. Here are links to my reviews of them.

Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna.

So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba.

Lyrics Alley, by Leila Aboulela.

What the Body Remembers, by Shauna Singh Baldwin.

Upstairs Wife, by Rafia Zakaria. 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2015 8:17 pm

    This sounds excellent, onto the wishlist it goes!

  2. February 15, 2015 7:52 am

    I enjoyed this one when I read it a few years back, but was nagged by the same issues as you raised. Some of the stuff just felt a little far-fetched.

    • February 18, 2015 12:41 pm

      Thanks for commenting. I enjoy having my response to books confirmed or disputed by others.

  3. July 30, 2015 7:23 am

    Nice review. Its interesting how different edition’s of this book have different titles. My edition’s title is “The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives”. Yeah, on Goodreads, I gave this book 3 stars as well. I wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion of Bolanle’s life in the book… But I did appreciate Lola Shoneyin’s way of writing about (crude) sexual incidents courageously.

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