I very much enjoyed reading His Only Wife, the debut novel from Peace Adzo Medie. Set in Ghana, it follows the story of Afi who finds herself the sort-of-willing participant in an arranged marriage.
The light-hearted tone, often wry observations and zippy pace meant I effortlessly read this book, even though the story was one that left me with raised eyebrows as it is set in a culture very different from mine, where women are still expected to, essentially, know their place. Therein lies the crux of this story.
Opening sentence: Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.
The opening sentence sets the scene nicely – Afi’s husband doesn’t actually bother attending their wedding. If you are wondering how this can possibly be legal, it is a traditional wedding, rather than one with a marriage certificate. The traditional wedding also means men can have more than one wife (women cannot have more than one husband):
All the traditional marriage does is recognize you as the first wife, but not the only wife.
Afi’s is chosen by her new husband’s mother as an ideal solution to a problem. The problem being that Eli is in a relationship (and has a child) with a woman who refuses to play be the rules society demands of her, she won’t change her life to become a dutiful wife and won’t bend to the demands of her potential mother-in-law. So Afi is drafted in to keep Eli on the right path and be a textbook dutiful wife:
It wasn’t easy being the key to other people’s happiness, their victory, and their vindication.
This is something Afi struggles with and it is her character development that makes the story such a joy to read. She has a passion for making clothes and wants to be a designer, she has friends she enjoys socialising with, she has her own strong will and ideas and this is something she has to balance against the way she was raised – to pretty much fulfil the achievement of becoming a good, dutiful wife.
His Only Wife also touches on the fact that women – such as Afi’s mother – are left in a very vulnerable positions when their husbands die, as they often don’t have any assets or money of their own. This leads to both Afi and her mother making some shrewd choices.
If there was one thing I agreed with my mother on, it was that one could never be sure about a person’s intentions, no matter how kind that person seemed.
There is a feminist takeaway
His Only Wife was a glimpse into a different culture for me and Afi was the true star of this read. She understands what is expected of her within her culture, while not being scared to question it and never forgetting that she is allowed to have her own happiness too. She is not just there to fulfil the traditional subservient role of a woman.
Effortless to read, the plot was enticing and threw a few curve balls to keep things interesting. No spoilers, but I’m very glad this book ended the way it did – it set the final defiant note perfectly.