This is not a book that would pass the Bechdel test. Set in Nigeria, the book revolves around Baba Segi, his four wives and their children. It begins with Baba Segi’s frustration that his fourth (and only educated) wife, Bolanle, has not yet borne him a child. Segi’s sense of masculinity is so tied up with his virility that he becomes obsessed with understanding her childlessness. By picking at that thread Baba Segi manages to unravel his whole life.
The book explores the relationships between the wives and is a scathing critique on the consequences of only valuing women for their ability to reproduce and judging men only on whether they have been fruitful. It also highlights the challenges of managing relationships within a group when one person is the source of all the others’ material needs and self-esteem. You really get the sense from the book of a society that is struggling to come to terms with whether it wants to change the traditional role of women and there are many different perspectives on this in the book.
What is great about the book is that each chapter of the book comes from the perspective of a different person and slowly we build up an understanding of the toxic atmosphere in the house that Bolanle has walked into. It starts with fairly stereotypical narrative of the wives – there is the vicious and overbearing first wife, the dull second wife and the scheming third wife – but what makes the book interesting is that it then goes on to fill in the back story of all of these women and suddenly what first appeared as casual cruelty or selfishness suddenly seems to make a lot of sense. It is beautifully written with really vivid characters and the way that Shoneyin teases out the deception at the heart of the family is absolutely delicious.
It was a good read.