Monday, 11 April 2011

Lola Shoneyin and the Price of Patriarchy: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

When I get hold of a book, I usually read the synopsis on the back cover and quotes from literary reviews. The brief synopsis of The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives did not give much away but there was something about it that made me think I might have heard of a similar story in real life. The story starts with a narrative in the third person, an introduction to the Alao family also known as Baba Segi’s household. The reader is made aware of what the problem is - New and fourth wife Bolanle is apparently the source of patriarch, Baba Segi’s bellyache. Much later, the reader finds out how black comedic and ironic it is to nurse a bellyache for one’s own problems when one thinks the source of the problem comes from another.

Shoneyin tells her story well. The pacing is brilliant. At first the reader squirms, yearning for questions to be answered: like why would Bolanle a young graduate choose to marry Baba Segi, a middle aged semi-illiterate polygamist? The reader’s unease at this point is a mixture of curiosity and tension, a tension that works to a climax within the plot of the story itself. The reader’s squirming stops at the appropriate point in the tale for those questions to be answered. Other elements of nail biting tension are added to the plot just as the reader thinks they know it all. The editing is excellent and structure is tight, particularly with the challenge of the story being told from seven different points of view.

The skills employed using seven different POVs to reveal the web of secrets at the centre of the plot is the gem that makes Shoneyin a credible, enviable voice in contemporary African fiction. The story is told from the point of view of all the major characters: Baba Segi, Taju the driver, Bolanle and the other three wives. The third person narrative acts as a bridge at specific points in the story to keep the reader up to date with the bigger picture.  Language – accessible, dramatic and lyrical play to Shoneyin’s strengths as a poet. Bawdy humour exposing gritty realism of day-to-day life in the Alao enclave is appropriate given the socio-economic class of most characters and the cultural context of a polygamous household.

Without doubt, drawbacks of patriarchy within Yoruba culture and impact on the lives of people living within it take centre stage in The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. None of the characters escape the choking tentacles of patriarchy. Baba Segi is protected in the complex web of deceit and societal ‘grace’ that his role as patriarch affords him. However as events unfold, the reader realises that he is also caught within its trap and limited by it. In this way, feminism weaves its unique strand of psychology into the reader’s thinking: men can also be victims of oppressive patriarchy. Unlike the other wives, Bolanle walks free. But even she pays a price for her freedom. The message is clear - women in such a society while being victims of a rigid patriarchal system must decide their own fate: to manipulate the tenets of patriarchy and collude with its oppressions or redefine their own identity while embracing a new found freedom. The conclusion seems to be that there is always a price to pay.

My only criticism of this engaging book would be that people from other cultures unfamiliar with the politics and setting of a polygamous household, might find the various points of view confusing. This could have been easily rectified by titling all relevant chapters with characters’ names so that it is clear who is telling their story. Regardless of this issue, the narrative told from various points of view is a strength, not a weakness.

I was right about my initial hunch. I had been told a similar story of a polygamous household in the mid 80s. There is however one indisputable fact - Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives packs in excess of a punch more.

©Adura Ojo. April 2011



Amy said...

Great review of this book - I had similar thoughts to you on it. Really enjoyed it, and for me it was completely new. Shoneyin is an author to watch it seems.

Adura Ojo said...

Thanks, Amy. That means a lot.
Yes, Shoneyin is definitely an author to watch. Can't wait to see what she comes up with, next. Love the way she uses humour to disarm her readers, so the message sinks in.

os said...

Nice. I've heard about the book but never read its review. Will read this book when I get the chance. Thanks.

Adura Ojo said...

thanks for the feedback, OS. I'm glad that the review has helped renew your interest in the book - it's a great book to read. Really accessible, funny and it gives you enough to ponder over at the same time.

wailacaan said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Like you said, it is very well written and edited to near perfection. The plot was mapped out. I'd recommend it to anyone. That said, my biggest problem with the book is the vulgarity for vulgarity sake. I didn't think it added anything to the story but obviously Lola Shoneyin did or she wouldn't have added it in.

Flourishingflorida said...

am really terrible at reading reviews. but, i was able to read 2 paragraphs of urs. i really enjoyed the book. the characterization was the best part for me.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Wailacaan
You call it vulgarity, I call it bawdy humour. I suppose my tolerance of naughtiness in a book is higher than the average person. And I have heard that criticism about the book in other quarters. That said, I think Shoneyin was appropriate in her use of 'vulgar' language. It is the 'talk' and part of the realist backdrop in that socio-cultural setting. In fact I've heard worse. The use of that particular kind of humour - garage talk, street talk - also helps to create a balance in terms of the more serious themes in the story. Here is a man who has been living a lie virtually all his adult life (unbeknown to him, of course). But we are not allowed to feel sorry for him even as his 'gigantic efforts' are wasted. If the writer did not lay on the bawdy humour like she did, I doubt that the story would have worked that well.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Florida
Nice to see you here. Thanks for your feedback. The characterization is great. It would make for a good Nollywood flick - Perhaps done in Yoruba with subtitles in English.

Wordsbody said...

I like that this review does not give the game away. 'The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives' is one of those novels that hang on a crucial revelation at one point in the story. Unfortunately, many reviewers in the Nigerian press have missed the point that you shouldn't give the whole game away. They've been laying it all out, who finds out what, who lives, who dies. Letting the cat out of the bag, and the reader is the worse off for it. And so I'm grateful when I find reviews that don't do Shoneyin's book that kind of disservice.

Adura Ojo said...

@ Wordsbody
Thanks for your observations. It is sad that there are reviews out there giving it all away. It ruins things for the reader and could inadvertently impact on book sales too. I made the conscious decision to avoid giving the game away as it would be a disservice like you said. Besides, I think a decent review should get the reader curious - wanting to know more by picking up the book themselves to read. Not thinking: *'well, I've sort of read that one now'*.

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