Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin

The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 304
Publication Date: July 5, 2011 (paperback)
Publisher: William Morrow
Source: I received a free review copy to participate in this TLC Book Tour.
Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Book Description (from the publisher):
Attempting to rise above the secrets of her past, Bolanle, a university graduate, marries Baba Segi, who promises her everything in exchange for agreeing to become his fourth wife. Thus she enters into a polygamous world filled with expensive clothes, a generous monthly allowance . . . and three Segi wives who disapprove of the newest, youngest, most educated addition to the family. There's Iya Femi, a fiery vixen with a taste for money; Iya Tope, a shy woman whose kindness is eclipsed by terror; and Iya Segi, the first, most lethal, and merciless of them all.
Bolanle quickly becomes Baba Segi's prized possession . . . until her very presence unlocks a secret that the other wives have long since guarded, and unleashing it could change life as they know it.

This book was originally published as a hardcover in 2010 as The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize.  Set in modern-day Nigeria, a part of the world I am not very familiar with, I felt a little bit at a disadvantage. Although many aspects of the characters' lives can be universally understood (love and loss, betrayal and hate, sorrow and redemption), I felt like I did not fully grasp some of the cultural aspects of the story. At the same time, the differences between my monogamous life in America versus the polygamous life in Nigeria that this book explores provided me with a new view of a part of the world that I knew little about.

The point of view changes from chapter to chapter in this book, which can be disconcerting but also allows the reader to better understand the motives and past experiences of each of Baba Segi's wives. The main character is essentially Bolanle, the youngest, most educated, and newest of the wives. Her existence in the household causes a lot of friction, and brings out the worst in the other wives. The big secret that they are trying to hide was pretty easy for me to figure out pretty early in the book, so it was a little bit frustrating that it took Bolanle so long to connect the dots.

I felt like the book description wasn't entirely true in its introduction to the other wives. Of all of the wives, I felt like Iya Femi was the most ruthless and cold-hearted of them all. She was selfish and vindictive, and she had no problems twisting her Christianity to justify her horrible actions. Iya Segi was the first wife, and although she did seem a bit ruthless and angry she didn't seem nearly as horrid as Iya Femi was.

There were some particularly heart-wrenching scenes in this book, including rape, severe illness, and death. Being a story about a polygamous family, it makes sense that there was also a lot of focus on sex, though this isn't written like a romance novel. Generally I am not a big fan of sex in books, but this did not bother me because it wasn't in the book to be titillating but was matter-of-fact and there as part of the story.

This was an interesting read told from very unique and sometimes surprising points of view. The fact that I figured out the secret long before Bolanle did detract from my enjoyment of the book (I kept wondering why it was taking her so long to connect the dots), but overall I thought she was a compelling character that had an impressive effect on the people around her. Her patience in the face of such hatred from the other wives was inspiring, as was her growth and recovery by the end of the story. I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in fiction set in modern-day Africa.

Related Linkage:
Reading Challenges: POC Reading Challenge, TwentyEleven Challenge (With a Twist), What's in a Name 4 (Number)


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