A harem keeper is much like a bee keeper; enjoy the honey, but brace for the sting, one day. For Alao, a.k.a. Baba Segi, the eponymous highfalutin husband in Lola Shoneyin’s debut novel, the sting did not come in a day; it happened every day of his married life. But in this well-knit social satire, it needed an unlikely help in the form of a fourth wife, for the portly polygamist to unravel it, to himself and to the reader, and that is served only in the last set of pages. Now that’s the stuff of page-turners. You emerge at the last page scared: if Bolanle, the odd ‘acada’ type among that motley harem had not happened on the scene, or if the senior wives had agreed to co-opt her into their well-guarded scheme, everyone would have lived happily ever after, and the putrid pus of the scandal might never have burst into the open!
The novel reads like Moliere except for its strong tragic echoes. Its 245 pages pack quite a punch: Baba Segi practises being dead; Segun, the ex of one of the wives goes to great length to abort someone else’s foetus he thought was his; a character enjoys reading a love letter she wrote to herself, which is the next best thing; mothers and daughters, long emotionally estranged, reunite in a Graecian dramatic setting, and much more.
The novel projects love in all its convolutions, real and pretended, sometimes a mere crush, often filial, and erotic, and, in at least one instance, LGBT compliant. But my top pick is the love that steadily grows between Bolanle and Segi, daughter of the matriarch of the family and unrepentant hater of Bolanle. The Bolanle-Segi rapprochement has enough ingredients to sideline Alao and his harem tales into a few paragraphs and generate a love story of its own – the love-across-enemy-lines variety.
For those who wish to be transported into a deeply Nigerian, nay, Yoruba, cultural milieu with locally- flavoured language, rustic mannerisms, idioms and nuances, yet conveyed with the ease of a first language user, here’s your book. The likes of Lola Shoneyin are children of Fagunwa and Tutuola in the age of linguistic sophistication. Village-bred philosophies and cultural memes are melded rather than merely built in. That was my joy as I savoured page after page until – well I don’t know if this is a female Nigerian ailment – these lines seized the rove of my eyes: ‘He emptied his testicles as deep into my womb as possible. Such graphic lines suggest not just a pandering to the goddess Erotica, but an afterthought, to satisfy the cravings of a certain readership clique – those who sit abroad with the yam and the yam prize. But Shoneyin, daughter-in-law of Soyinka, who spurns her more illustrious surname ( at least in literature terms) in favour of her maiden name partly to underscore her indebtedness to her father for his encouragement, is not just about local flavour. … The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is far more than the refined equivalent of Aluwe, Baba Sala and the Fuji House of Commotion that routinely regale Nigerian TV audience with stories of similar cultural DNA. Shoneyin writes with the ease of a first language user. The language does, in fact, on occasions, rise to hypnotising levels, as when the author imbues the wind with teeth to convey its coldness, and when ‘Iya Femi picked me up with his eyes and threw me to the floor’ .
It s equally well laced with sarcasm. Like the drop of a tiny pebble in water, it leaves you with ripples of home grown philosophies. And that includes when the characters construct maledictions.
A lineage of female writers has treated the subject of love, polygamy and childlessness (Buchi Emecheta, The Joys of Motherhood, etc), but none has done so with such basket-weaver’s dexterity and flair. Perhaps a few readers may not need to be crystal ball artistes to guess how the old wives tales would finally resolve, but medoubts if any could crack the code until they get way beyond the hospital scenes where Alao is cold-bloodedly exposed to all the elements in the medical universe. The author first fattens him with delicacies from his own recipe so that the goddess of retribution would find him meat enough for her dinner. Shoneyin must have partly modelled Alao on the character of Baroka, the serial polygamist in Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, for whom, elsewhere, Shoneyin confesses a deep distaste. And so she has Alao set himself up nicely: the occasion of receiving a lab results becomes a momentous one. He is the faultless, family-supporting husband, the generous sperm donor extraordinaire who suddenly runs into the misfortune of a barren fourth wife with whom he is about to lose his patience unless she sorts herself out quickly at the hospital. By the time the medics get to the bottom of the matter, conveying the balance sheet of his sperm account to him becomes both a medical and moral dilemma. But the needful has to be done even if someone has to fall from the high horse of his self-praise. And what a thud!
Except perhaps for a hanging dependent clause [P.220], the book makes for a smooth, easily digestible read. I have issues with the manner Alao’s health matter was allegedly resolved, and with certain other threads that were rather left loosely around the nebulous character called Teacher.
The candor with which book treats the subject of family and infidelity borders on recklessness, yet the last pages are invested with a depth of sensitivity and pathos that can only come from a compassionate heart. Perhaps Alao invited his own cuckoldry. With a massive, massage-seeking ego and a lack of introspection, the wives were hard-pressed showing him any pictures other than the very one he wanted to see. It is a tribute to Shoneyin’s savoir faire that, after orchestrating that great fall, she manages to sew up Humpty Dumpty’s honour together again.
The author acknowledged that the story grew out of an anecdote told her by a friend; one wonders how much of the novel now translated into French and produced on several stages around the world actually owes its brilliance to that original anecdote and how much grew from the author’s fertile imagination.
Book: The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
Publisher : Cassava Republic, third edition, 2015 Reviewer: Anaele Ihuoma. Review type: Two-page review series. One page-version available on request.