The first time I heard of Lola Shoneyin, it was in an interview she gave where she stated that she wrote because it beat ironing! I wish I could make a similar choice… ‘No, Daddy. I can’t iron your shirts, I want to write.’ Haha!
Lola’s first novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, chronicles the history and happenings of a polygamous household. I started the book expecting a Fuji House of Commotion kind of scenario; lots of humor, petty jealousy, and cat fights between rivalling wives. Well, check on all counts. Except that the humor arises from the author’s amusement at her characters, the jealousy is more virulent than petty, and there are no cat fights, no physical combat. Just deliberately hurtful (very hurtful) words.
Ok, I thought, a serious book.
Lola tells the story of the Alao family with highly evocative descriptions and with an elegant plot. Baba Segi, the head of the household, is married to four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi and Bolanle. As the story progresses, we learn about the history of each of the wives, the reasons they married Baba Segi and most importantly, how well they accept being a part of a polygamous family. The characters could easily be people we know in passing, the story timeless.
Lola knows her story and sticks to it, mercifully resisting the temptation to digress into interesting (but ultimately pointless) sub plots that are hinted at in the main narrative. Each of the main characters (Baba Segi and his wives) could easily stand as main characters in their own novels but it is Bolanle, the youngest wife whose story, it seems, this is. She is young, a university graduate and has chosen polygamy to escape, to heal away from her world. My first thought, People actually do this? My next thought, Would I do this?
The novel keeps the questions coming, challenging our choices and perceptions of everyday events. I ask myself, at the end of the novel, would I have done what Iya Segi did? What she encouraged her fellow wives to do? On moral grounds, no. But if I was in her shoes in every sense of the word, semi-agnostic, uneducated… Hmmm.
The fact that the narrative switches from the 3rd person to the 1st person means that the story keeps its momentum well, delivering its climax and then elegantly dancing away to pare its nails, totally indifferent to the bombshell just dropped. The resolution is bitter-sweet. We are left with the classic Nigerian response ‘Eh ya’ to the tragedy, and a ‘Bravo!’ to Bolanle’s decision. Lola delivers.
On a more subjective note, I personally feel the story could have worked just as well without all the sex scenes and genital descriptions. I truly didn’t see the point and had to skip quite a number of paragraphs and pages. So, if you’re like me, and like your stories clean, then this is totally not the book for you. If you can stomach it though, it tells a darn good story and once again announces that Nigerian writers are finally losing the Nollywood mentality and coming into their own.