The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin

Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of the Four Wives is set in modern-day Nigeria where men are supreme and wives are meant to breed children — an obsession of Baba Segi and the reason he has four wives.  However, his newest wife, Bolanle, is the youngest and most educated of the four — Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle — and her entry into the household generates jealousy and change.

Baba Segi’s only concerns are being catered to by his wives and procreation, and when Bolanle fails to produce an heir after much “pounding” (his words), he seeks counsel from his male friends and the “Teacher,” who advises him to bring her to the hospital.  It is then that the jealousy of the women becomes more concentrated on Bolanle, as they struggle to protect a family secret.

“Even a child would have worked out why my father was extolling qualities that had previously vexed him; I was compensation for the failed crops.  I was just like the tubers of cassava in the basket.  Maybe something even less, something strange — a tuber with eyes, a nose, arms and two legs.  Without fanfare or elaborate farewells, I packed my bags.  I didn’t weep for my mother or my father, or even my siblings.  It was the weeds I didn’t get the chance to uproot that year that bothered me.”  (page 91)

Shoneyin adopts what many might consider a very masculine prose that creates a crass view of sex in a polygamist household and a not-so-favorable perspective of Baba Segi, the husband.  Even when the narrative shifts to Bolanle’s first-person point of view, the language is harsh, making it difficult for readers to discern the speaker with each shift.  However, these shifts gradually become easier to discern, and each perspective adds a new layer to the narrative and deepens the complexity within the Segi family.

Readers may want more background and detail of Nigeria and its customs or at least its a more vibrant picture of its places and culture.  Shoneyin generates a harsh world that is not only Nigeria, but could be any country at any time in which polygamy is the norm and women are seen as second-class citizens.  What is absent here is a clear sense of place and time — a setting that could have made the story more vivid and memorable.

The Secret Lives of the Four Wives may have been long-listed for the Orange Prize, but the characters and story are reminiscent of other oppressed women under similar circumstances.  However, what makes this novel unique is the four wives and their perspectives on why they became wives of Baba Segi — what circumstances led them to that choice and why they continue to stay.  Each has a compelling story to tell, and while Baba Segi is not a sympathetic character, he does provide his wives with an oasis from their pasts and with the confidence to rule their own lives.  Overall, readers will get a glimpse into another world and of what it means to be one of many wives.


About the Author:

Lola Shoneyin lives in Abuja, Nigeria, where she teaches English and drama at an international school. She is married, with four children and three dogs.  Please visit her Website and her blog.



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This is my 31st book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


  1. I also recently read and reviewed this title. I have a group of Nigerian friends, and, yes, the language of the book is very genuine and reflective of the culture – so very different from ours. I agree with you that the most interesting part was the unveiling of each woman’s background and finding out what brought them into this marriage – pretty harsh world for them.

  2. I think I’d be most interested in why they became his wives and why they chose to stay, so I’m glad to know that is an important part of the story.

    Thanks for being on the tour Serena!

    • I think that’s the best part of the book and the book wasn’t terrible at all. I really enjoyed it though it was predictable in certain instances. I really just wanted to see more of Nigeria. I like to travel in my books.

  3. I’ll have to pop back after I finish reading this one. I just wanted to check out your final opinion. I’m enjoying it so far and I usually always like books like this anyway.

  4. WOW! This one sounds intense but good — I’m totally going to look for this one. Thanks for your review — this hadn’t been on my radar!

  5. I think it would be interesting to read why these women all became wives of the same man. Too bad the setting was as well depicted as you’d hoped.

    • I liked the stories of the women, but I felt like there could have been more about the setting, etc. and how that played into each woman’s decision…I wanted to see more of their conditions prior to their marriages. Yes, life was difficult, but how. You know what I mean?!

  6. It seems the setting is an important part of this book so, like you, I would expect more about Nigeria. It still sounds really good to me, though!

    • I really liked the book, but there wasn’t a ton of setting. I think that might be due to the POV shifts in the book…