A tantalising glimpse into a very different way of life (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published July 2011 by William Morrow Paperbacks
Paperback edition- 304 pages
I’m oddly fascinated by Polygamous families. I don’t know why, but it’s always so interesting to read about lifestyles very different to that of my own and I’m a bit obsessed with watching TV programmes and documentaries on the theme, too. I know- I’m weird.
At the start of the year I read a book on this subject matter by Brady Udall, which was set in the USA. This story by contrast, is set in Nigeria and I was keen to see how polygamy would be portrayed in a non-western culture where taking multiple wives is not necessarily as frowned upon to the same extent. I’m also fascinated by books set in Africa generally and really couldn’t wait to dive into this novel.
Meet Baba Segi: a man who promises university graduate Bolanle the earth if she will only agree to become his fourth wife. Trying to overcome her haunted past, Bolanle enters the world of polygamy, not realising that her very presence threatens to topple the lives of the three other wives and unleash some closely guarded secrets they have been desperate to keep hidden…
Oh good grief. A pretty complex looking character list was at the start of this novel. One of my pet hates as it suggests that I will a) be flipping backwards and forwards throughout just to try and remember who is who and b) that I should even need to do that in the first place means this book will be complicated. Argh! That aside however, I was actually quite glad it was included in this book. Understandably, there are some pretty complex relationships in this story as well as quite a few of Baba Segi’s multiple offspring included, so it made sense to see how the characters were connected and as well as what order the women became his wives.
I really enjoyed the writing style in this story and following the journey that was undertaken as well of the exploration of the minefield that is polygamy. Shoyeni paints a vivid picture of not only her characters, but also Nigeria itself. She doesn’t hold back on some of the country’s darker aspects either, including crime, poverty and violence. That being said, this was very much a character-driven novel, which I had anticipated from its outset. It was poignant and moving and though I initially wasn’t sure about the protagonists and their behaviour, I grew to understand more about them and what made them that way as the novel progressed. It was also helpful reading chapters from each wives’ perspective in order to understand what made them tick as individuals. I can only imagine how Iya Segi (the first wife) felt as the other wives gradually became part of her household and the jealousy and resentment that ensued.
I have to say that Baba Segi himself is really not portrayed as the most desirable of his species which is why it was almost comical that he had so many women fighting over him. In all honesty, with his farting, burping and some other pretty gross bodily habits, he sounds quite vile. He is corpulent, clumsy and downright awkward and certainly sounds like no champion in the bedroom department, either. I did have a bit of a chuckle when one of his wives described him (not to his face of course) as a ‘flatulent pig.’ That aside, he is also quite brutal, he has no qualms about physically assaulting his wives either, which is why it was so difficult to understand how he had four of them. He is certainly no prize. As the story unfolds however, the reader comprehends the four women’s different reasons for being with Baba Segi and more importantly- staying with him. I didn’t pity him however, even as secrets were unveiled and his world crumbled around him- I abhor domestic violence. I sort of wanted him (and some of his wives) to get their comeuppance.
The four women have very different backgrounds and it was interesting to read about the bitter jealousy and rivalries that sprung up between them as well as get to know their own personality traits. I have to concede though, that aside from wife number four (Bolanle), there aren’t that many redeeming features to any of them and they are either bitter, weak or selfish. Almost all of the principal characters in this story were seriously flawed in some way, which is why I found it so engrossing. There was spite, hate and some very damaging secrets, which when they came to a head between them, had some very serious, tragic repercussions.
I’ve awarded this book four stars and not five, as it was obvious as to what the wives’ secrets would be, though that certainly did not take away my enjoyment of its revelation. I also struggled at first to understand who was narrating each chapter as there was not anything signifying that the narrator its start and some of the wives voices were initially quite indistinct from one another.
I found myself engrossed by this story of love, family, bitter rivalry and irreplaceable loss. It was a truly tantalising glimpse into a very complicated family set-up and I loved learning a bit more about Nigerian culture in the process, too, which was cleverly woven throughout the plot. It’s a story I would definitely recommend for anyone looking for a different slice of contemporary fiction and I’m certainly not surprised it has gained so much critical acclaim, both in the author’s home country and overseas.