Nigeria: family matters

I’m not usually a fan of putting family trees at the start of novels. Maybe it’s because I’m not a very visual person, but it seems to me that greeting readers with a complex diagram featuring a load of names of characters they’ve not met yet is a sure-fire way to put people off.

But then, as I’m finding again and again in my quest to read a book from every country this year, there are exceptions to most of my assumptions about literature. And The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin is, er, no exception.

As the title suggests, the 2011 Orange prize-longlisted novel unravels the hidden stories of the four women of the household of Baba Segi, a prosperous, middle-aged businessman in the Nigerian city of Ibadan. The catalyst for the revelations is encapsulated neatly by the diagram on the opening page: a family tree that shows the offspring of three of the wives but only a blank space under the name of Bolanle, the fourth wife. As Baba Segi tries everything he can think of to discover the cause of his nubile, young spouse’s childlessness, one secret after another tumbles out of the shadows to smash open in the heart of his ordered home.

As with Mariama Bâ’s classic So Long a Letter (about a polygamous marriage in Senegal), education is a major theme in the book. At first, university graduate Bolanle seems like the odd one out in Baba Segi’s home, where, faced with the jealousy and vindictiveness of Baba Segi’s poorly educated older wives, she discovers ‘the dark side of illiteracy’. It seems clear that some hidden calamity must have made her abandon the independent career her mother dreamed she would follow in favour of the ‘unspeakable self-flagellation’ of life with the well-meaning but boorish Baba Segi.

But as the narrative unfolds and we hear from each of the wives in turn, it becomes apparent that each of the woman has been forced into their situation by the cruelty and thoughtlessness of others and circumstances beyond their control. In fact, as the final, deft twist in the plot comes into view, we realise that the only person more thwarted and disenfranchised than the women of the household is Baba Segi himself.

Shoneyin has that rare gift of being passionate on her characters’ behalfs while putting their stories over in an engaging and often very funny way. The undercurrents of the subject matter — in particular the frequent inability of mothers to offer daughters a better path in life through no fault of their own — are often deeply sad, yet they are overlaid with a series of sometimes harrowing but often funny set pieces that keep the book from tumbling into worthiness.

In particular, the encounters of Baba Segi with Western medicine, to which he turns as a last resort (and the way the doctors modulate their bedside manner to incorporate ‘the traditional shit [that] always worked on the older farts’) are very entertaining.

So much so, that I read the whole book in pretty much one sitting. And that family tree is still etched on my mind even now.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Serpent’s Tail 2010, 2011)