Tuesday, October 5, 2010
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives
Polygamy is one of those things that has that train wreck fascination/repulsion factor for most people. It's a guaranteed ratings booster for news programs and chat shows. Right up there with the long lost family dog who reappears just in time to save baby Lucy from drowning in the pond out back. There are tons of nonfiction books available about escaped wives, daughters forced to marry elders and founding and history of various groups that advocate having multiple wives but how is polygamy doing in fiction? Is it becoming the hot new fiction sub-genre? There was The 19th Wife a couple years ago and both The Lonely Polygamist and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives a few months ago. Three titles on one subject might not seem like enough of a trend to you to turn that subject into a hot topic in publishing but it was the first time in my 30+ years in bookselling that I remember 3 fiction titles with polygamy at their core coming out within such a short span of time. These titles were well reviewed enough and sold well enough to get your polygamy novel moved a little higher in the to be read manuscript pile but they weren't the breakout bestsellers that creates a place on every publisher's list for a novel on that topic.
Is there a lesson here? Um...yeah. Add a character to that crime novel set in Scandinavia that you are writing that is living with wives 1,2 and 3. Hey! Maybe your detective should have many un-divorced from wives but of course still be lonely and tortured. I am officially declaring copyright on this idea. It could be genius.
The one polygamy novel that I have read is The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. It is a first novel written by Nigerian poet Lola Shoneyin. Secret Lives is a contemporary story of a successful Nigerian businessman. Baba Segi has four wives and seven children. They are the proof of his virility and prosperity. Until wife number four, Bolanle, entered the household things were apparently running smoothly for the Segi family. Bolanle's university education, youth, beauty and inability to conceive has set her apart from the other wives. This change in the family sets events in motion that bring disastrous consequences.
Nigeria adds an otherness (to small town U.S.A. me) to the story that made polygamy somehow more acceptable. It became more of a flamboyant excess rather than something immediately stomache turning, although that did come later. It was another unique element in the book set in an exotic land. That enabled me to better enjoy the subtleties that Shoneyin brings to the marriage dynamic and makes more startling the violent episodes in the story. All of the wives entered the marriage for different reasons and they all bring a different power to their role in the group. Shoneyin shifts the telling of the story around to each of the wives, Baba and even his driver. The wives histories and how they ended up in a polygamous home were very interesting--especially when seen though various points of view.
With The Secret Lives of Baba Seg' Wives we get a view of a small part of Nigerian society as well as learn more about Nigeria in general. That is something almost completely missing from our literary buffet in this country. Shoneyin has produced a well thought out and effective novel with vigorous characters. She is a novelist to watch and look forward to.
And. This would be an excellent book club choice.