A while back I wrote about my thoughts on debut novels and the fact that I don’t tend to run out and buy them. Well imagine my surprise that during my Orange Longlist reading it’s the debuts on the whole that have really shone out for me, no wonder there were so many (nine out of twenty) on the list. ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ by Lola Shoneyin is one of these debuts. I hadn’t heard of it before the longlist was announced but if I had been browsing in a bookshop and seen the cover and read the title (which is one of my favourites of the year so far) and blurb I think it’s a book I’d have walked away with, and if you see it in your local book shop you should get it sharpish too.
In the roughly modern day we meet Nigerian businessman Baba Segi during a chronic stomach ache. He believes the cause of his problem is down to the fact that his most recent wife Bolanle does not appear to be able to carry a child. When I say recent I do not mean that Baba Segi is a rich divorcee, for the household of Baba Segi is a polygamous one and Bolanle is in fact his fourth wife, one which the other three were not happy to see enter the house. More wives equals less time with their husband, and with every new wife comes the threat that their lives could change forever as each previous wife has a secret and there is also one big secret running through the whole family. What the hostile three don’t realise is that Bolanle has secrets too.
What of course these secrets are I shall keep to myself, because as I read a long I had no idea what was coming and that made the book really enjoyable as a first time read. I have to say that I could happily read it all over again knowing everything as I now do because of the wonderful, and the wicked, characters that appear in the book. Despite the fact you might not like them all, Baba Segi is a bit of a pig really, I think some might find that a mild accusation, and the first wife Iya Segi and third wife Iya Femi aren’t two of the nicest ladies though as you read on you learn why they are the way they are and how they ended up as one of Baba Segi’s wives. Dare I say the more you read to them and discover their desperation the more you understand them?
I think one of the most clever aspects of ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ is that the novel is told in over six or seven narratives and the third person, the latter which fills in the gaps on and off. This could have been a risk because any book where you have more than three or four voices, which doesn’t happen that often, can become confusing. This is not the case in Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel. Every voice is totally different and within a line or two you can tell just which wife is talking as their narratives are so individual and distinctive and it is the women’s voices, as Baba Segi only gets a chapter or two in first person and his driver one, that could have all sounded rather samey.
The other great aspect of the novel is the way that Shoneyin captures Nigeria. Through the wives and how they go about their lives in the present and let the reader into their pasts we glimpse all aspects, and walks of life, in Nigeria over the past few decades. It doesn’t always make for comfortable reading (these wives are hiding things after all) but its very thought provoking and yet written in, and I don’t use this term very often as I think it’s a bit of a cliché but in this case is true, a very compassionate tone.
I loved ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ from the very first chapter. It is a book which manages to say a heck of a lot in fewer than 250 pages, it is brimming with characters, will make you angry, laugh (especially when the women discuss Baba Segi’s anatomy), gasp and possibly cry in equal measure, and is simply a book that you really need to read if you haven’t already. I will definitely read whatever Lola Shoneyin writes next, I hope there are many books to come from her. 9.5/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
This is the last review of any Orange longlisted novels before the big announcement of the short list tomorrow. At the time this post was scheduled (with my health and hospital visits scheduling is proving most useful) I had half a book left from the longlist to finish so will be guessing tomorrow though I can tell you in advance of that I have everything crossed for Lola Shoneyin and the four wives of Baba Segi’s as its just a wonderful read. Which books are you hoping make the short list? I find it really exciting and promising so many of the debut novels on the list have been excellent, what excellent debut have you read recently? Who else has read ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’ and what did you make of it?