My first thoughts when I saw the cover for The Secret Lives of the Four Lives by Lola Shoneyin, was what a beautiful cover. Shoneyin paints an ugly and sometimes graphic portrait of a polygamist family in Nigeria.
The educated Bolanle is running from her past and makes a choice to marry Baba Segi, who already has three wives and is twice her age. I know every country and culture has its own views on polygamy, but why would an educated woman make this choice? It’s a choice that her mother and sister are against. It’s like Bolanle felt she couldn’t do better. That she didn’t deserve better.
Life in Baba Segi’s home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The three wives have their own bond. Two of them – Iya Segi and Iya Femi – are especially close. Iya Tope, the second wife, almost seemed like a ghost to me. She wants to be friendly with Bolanle and even accepts her offer to teach Iya Tope how to read, but when push comes to shove she disappears. She has no voice in the house. When the opportunities come to defend Bolanle, Iya Tope just shuts down. Nothing comes out of her mouth.
Iya Segi and Iya Femi resent Bolanle not just because they have to share Baba Segi even more, but because she represents what they could have been. They thumb their noses at the educated B olanle. In her youth, Iya Segi didn’t even want to get married. She was saving money for a life of her own, but those dreams were dashed by her mother. Iya Femi’s parents died before she could finish her education. Iya Femi was then forced into a life of servitude and torture by her own grandmother before she broke free. Iya Femi and Iya Segi band together to try and break Bolanle’s spirit. It’s cruel the things they do. Forcing the children to ignore her, accusing her of trying to kill Baba Segi, and other forms of emotional abuse.
There is an even deeper bond that the three older wives share. They have been hiding a big secret from Baba Segi. I won’t say what it is, but they are leading to believe he is a greater man than he is. Baba Segi is just an awful man. His manhood is linked to how many children he can sire.
The story is told from several points of view, making you feel sorry for Bolanle most of all. You understand why Iya Segi and Iya Femi have become so hardened. But why not try to break the cycle why continue to be cruel? It's not the easiest story to get through because tough subjects, including rape, are tackled. But it is a deeply engrossing read.
Rating: O.M.G. !!!