Title – His Only Wife
Author – Peace Adzo Medie
Genre – Contemporary fiction, cultural fiction
The name of the author and the vibrant cover caught my attention when I first came across this book. On checking the synopsis, I was led into a world of arranged marriages, which made for an interesting read in the cultural context – the story being set in Ghana, with a seamstress protagonist. While I expected this book to be a breezy read – a lighthearted take on serious subjects, Medie’s writing and magnificent storytelling blew me away from the first line until I turned the last page.
Narrated from the perspective of Afi – the titular character – the very first sentence tells us how her husband didn’t make it to their wedding and sent a proxy instead. This opener is so powerful, setting the scene for a peculiar cultural event – a traditional marriage ceremony where stand-ins serve the purpose if either party is absent; that said ceremony will still continue with a substitute, instead of waiting for the actual bride or groom. The fact that it’s an arranged marriage ups the peculiarity of the event – Afi never met her husband on the day of her wedding, and not even weeks after.
Afi’s marriage with Eli Ganyo was fixed by both their mothers – Afi’s mother being indebted to Eli’s mother for helping them out when young Afi’s father had passed away and they were thrown out of the family home. Eli’s mother does not approve of her son’s current relationship, and plans to get rid of the woman by marrying him off to a woman of her choice. The fact that Eli has a child with his partner doesn’t matter to either side of the families. A wife will help him leave behind his old ways seems to be the only logical solution they can think of. And so the marriage. One where Afi is technically the only wife, but still somehow not the only one, with her husband continuing to maintain a dual life with both women.
On its surface, His Only Wife is a domestic drama about a complicated, claustrophobic relationship. But Medie brings in all the subtle nuances that endear the story to readers. All the main characters who lend a perspective to the proceedings are women. Afi’s mother Olivia, Eli’s mother Aunty and sister Yaya, Afi’s neighbor Evelyn and best friend Miriam, Afi’s boss Sarah, and the other woman Muna – we are greeted by a plethora of female characters who guide Afi for and against her predicament and what should be done. That the book has a strong patriarchal element in its cultural setting makes Medie’s narrative all the more alluring. Afi’s mother telling her a daughter’s home is no longer her home once she’s married, Eli’s mother blaming the other woman for casting spells on her innocent son and trapping him in a relationship, Eli’s sister blaming Afi for her brother’s unhappiness in the marriage, the neighbor blaming the Ganyo women for everything, Afi’s sense of one-upmanship over having a son compared to the other woman who has a daughter, the empty promises from Afi’s in-laws – what stirs the reader is that women seem to bring down other women, gossip and ridicule at any given opportunity. While fighting for feminism and equal gender rights, how many women stand up or speak for other women? Throughout the book, we never really meet Muna – the other woman. All the reader learns about her is from the remaining characters, which provides a lot of food for thought over regular life – Are our opinions of people based on our experiences and interactions with them, or what we hear about them from others? How many times have we been swayed by someone’s influence on our thoughts and decisions? The second most striking line in the book is Afi’s declaration on Muna’s hardihood – “She’s not crazy, or manly, or suicidal, or an alcoholic, or a chain-smoker, or a bad mother. There’s nothing wrong with her! She’s a woman who you don’t like because she does as she pleases and doesn’t dance to your tune.” This is truly a strong moment for the reader, making one question who the book is actually about. Have we decided on the protagonist and antagonist because we are led to believe so? What if their roles switched? The story having been written in the first person from Afi’s voice, the reader’s sole representation of Muna is from the characters Afi talks to. Afi has never met Muna, and neither have we. In a world when husbands, sons, brothers, fathers, uncles have the final say but are not accountable for what they say or do, only to be supported by wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts – where does patriarchy truly lie? Is supporting an injustice the same as carrying out an injustice?
Medie’s unassuming but illuminating writing was one of the few goosebump-inducing books I’ve read in a while. The language is simple – like someone telling you a story instead of a literary read. The premise is as vibrant as the cover – fashion and food of Ghana for a complete cultural experience. Such brilliance in the descriptions of clothes and cuisine, you can almost picture yourself wearing a stunning bead and lace creation of Afi’s, or relishing traditional stews. A peculiar theme that could have swung the narrative from either quirky and breezy to seriously heavy reading, but Medie finds that right spot of perfection in absolutely everything for a novel – cover, characters, themes, reader resonance, language. The fact that the writer has a PhD and is a university professor of gender rights and international politics, and can still narrate serious issues with simplicity and subtle humor, keeps you in awe of having the pleasure to read this book.
My rating – 5/5
I was fortunate to meet (albeit virtually) the author and listen to her discuss the book. A summary of my experience hearing the story behind the story can be found here.