Book Excerpt – The Secret Lives of the Four Wives: A Novel


The Secret Lives of the Four Wives: A Novel
by Lola Shoneyin

    Publication Date:
    List Price: $14.99
    Format: Paperback, 304 pages
    Classification: Fiction
    ISBN13: 9780061946387
    Imprint: William Morrow Paperbacks
    Publisher: HarperCollins
    Parent Company: News Corporation
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    Copyright © 2011 by Lola Shoneyin. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted with permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.

    Chapter One – Polygamist

    I didn’t just happen upon this room; I dreamed of the pale green walls before I arrived. Now the built-in wardrobe is mine and so is the ceiling fan. My window looks over a backyard with patchy but neatly trimmed grass. Damp clothes flap in the evening breeze and perfume the air with detergent. On the back wall, an iron drum is darkened from burned refuse. A tap juts from the grass and a weathered concrete slab lies beneath it. It is not a perfect view but it is mine. There are no flowers or trees, no fields, no rolling hills; just a vegetable patch where Iya Femi cultivates Jos peppers. I know that smell well. My mother used to cut them into fried eggs whenever she fell pregnant. The aroma from the frying pan would keep the rest of us on the cusp of a sneeze. Then one day, as Mama sat in the front yard wrinkling her nose, the babies would leak down her leg. Who could blame them? Maybe they heard her relentless nagging and decided that it was better to be born unformed. I must have covered my ears when I was in her womb, or perhaps she was quieter then.

    Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t only come here to get away from my mother; I came to get away from the feeling of filth that followed me. If I stayed at home, I knew the day would come when Mama would come to my room and find pools of blood at my wrists. After everything happened, I tried hard to continue being myself but I slowly disappeared. I became Bolanle, the soiled, damaged woman. Except that was hard too because Mama kept trying to make me do all the things the old Bolanle would have done. Don’t you think you should get a job, Bolanle? Won’t you apply for this bank job in the newspapers, Bolanle? Didn’t you see the handsome boy that was looking at you, Bolanle! How could I tell her that I had failed to preserve my dignity? I was too ashamed to let her see the fickle shell I’d become. Inevitably, it became unbearable. The more she pushed, the more I resisted. I didn’t want a job! I didn’t want a white wedding! I just wanted the war between who I used to be and who I’d become to end. I didn’t want to fight anymore.

    Somehow, it all made perfect sense when I met Baba Segi. At last, I would be able to empty myself of my sorrow. I would be with a man who accepted me, one who didn’t ask questions or find my quietness unsettling. I knew Baba Segi wouldn’t be like younger men who demanded explanations for the faraway look in my eye. Baba Segi was content when I said nothing.

    So, yes. I chose this home. Not for the monthly allowance, not for the lace skirt suits, and not for the coral bracelets. Those things mean nothing to me. I chose this family to regain my life, to heal in anonymity. And when you choose a family, you stay with them. You stay with your husband even when your friends call him a polygamist ogre. You stay with him when your mother says he’s an overfed orangutan. You look at him in another light and see a large but kindly, generous soul.

    After I first met him, I told my sister, Lara, that I’d found the perfect man for me. “You want to marry a polygamist and be part of a big, ugly family? Mama will go crazy! When will you tell her?” she cackled. She knew that for once it would be me on the receiving end of Mama’s exasperation. Soon, I said.

    Mama’s reaction was predictable. She listened impatiently to my intentions and then said she would like to claw out the eyes of this man who had misled me. Just to hear him wail, she added. When she saw that I was unmoved, she tried her unique brand of persuasion. Your future will be futile and uninteresting, she said. Polygamy is for gold diggers and bush dwellers, not educated children brought up in a good Christian home. I thought this was funny because we’d never been churchgoers. Mama said it was shameful for a woman to go to church without her husband and Daddy said Sundays were supposed to be days of rest, as the Bible itself stipulated. By the time Mama was wailing about me embarrassing my bloodline, I was daydreaming about the peace I would have in my husband’s house.

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