Monjae Book Club Review: His Only Wife
This review may contain spoilers, and touches on themes of the Monjae Book Club discussion. The monthly book club features works by African and diaspora authors with one selection read and discussed each month. Join us on Facebook.
Giving clue to the potential drama ahead, the first line of His Only Wife may well get under your skin, or at the very least, evoke a palpable reaction: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.” And just like that, we step right in it, no time to take our shoes or coats off. Afi Tekple, an aspiring seamstress, was convinced by her mother to marry Eli, both as an opportunity out of poverty and out of a sense of indebtedness to Eli’s mother who Afi’s own mother happens to work for: Aunty, the overbearing matriarch of the Ganyo family.
Eli Ganyo is a handsome, rich, and successful Ghanaian businessman, so basically, as far from in need of ANY help getting or keeping a woman as a man could be. On top of that, he lives with Mona, the mother of his child, who he decidedly intends to make a life with. “The Liberian Woman,” as the family refers to Mona, is depicted as a villainess who has cast a spell over their son and brother. Not wanting to leave anything to chance – or love – the family decides that the best way to break Mona’s evil spell on Eli is to arrange a marriage between Afi and Eli.
Question is, will the plan succeed? Faced with two “attractive” options, will Eli choose one, the other, or want to have his cake and eat it too? All things considered, given the way such stories typically go for women in Afi’s position, things ultimately do not end worse for Afi in the end. But is that good enough? We see a woman coming into her own, and coming to terms with - and making the best of - her less than perfect choices.
The women are really the backbones of this story, including Afi’s unconventional-by-societal-standards and accidental friend, Evelyn, who lives in the same building and happens to be in a relationship with Eli’s brother, Richard. Evelyn schools Afi on the ways of this new world she now finds herself in intentionally-accidentally, encouraging Afi to give herself permission to put her situation in personal perspective. Meanwhile Evelyn lives life on her own terms, just as life imposes its terms on her. On the hand Afi’s mother remains bound by overriding obligations and considerations.
Now, the men? Most of them seem to be creating the lives these women are caught trying to make the most of. Even Afi’s loving, overly generous deceased father, although one of the more lovable male characters. The man Afi meets twice in passing would be an interesting character for exploration should there be a sequel - he seems to be a man whose confidence is not build on praise or conquest, with a certain appreciation for joy.
This first book club read of the year had readers deeply engaged and experiencing a range of emotions. People had a lot to say before, during and after picking up the book; from wondering how the story ends, staying awake to read well into the morning hours, to reading the book in one sitting, club members also had a lot to say about how they would write a sequel to the book. Many are curious about Mona, the other woman who we hear being talked about so much, but never really get a chance to hear her voice. Our minor interaction with Mona reveals that she may be and look quite differently than described. Does the picture we paint always match the actual image in reality? Through Mona we learn the price a woman pays for assertiveness, basically setting healthy boundaries. Is she really the other woman, when she was the one who was with Eli to begin with?
His Only Wife raises many interesting questions about the intersection of tradition and natural modern progression - in this story, are women still in their place, or at least places truly of their own making? Whatever the case, the agency of women to make choices over their lives and bodies, and their prioritization of available options is key. And perhaps, that women can even carve new paths amidst societal pressures and impositions. We also see how some women reinforce the patriarchy whether passively or even forcefully. Are they aware of the consequences? Speaking broadly (and a generalization), Afi’s life provides an oft-unexplored bridge between African women of different socio-economic realities and the ways in which our stories are not truly that divergent. His Only Wife also shows the fluidity and precarious nature of social status, often quickly and drastically changing along with circumstances.
Another remarkable point about the book is how intimately African it is in its telling, in the use of language (although written in English), the centering of African culture and voices in a pointed yet understated kind of way. Interestingly, there is only one mention of a white person, a South African, who shows up at the cookout to grill the meat, because he loves engaging in this activity. This point isn't truly remarkable, but my existence in America with it's othering tendencies juxtaposed with the loss of self-consciousness I feel anywhere on the continent (in Africa) exaggerates the point.
His Only Wife is the beautiful and powerful debut novel by Peace Adzo Medie, born in Liberia and raised in Liberia and Ghana. She is a Senior Lecturer on Gender and International Politics at the University of Bristol in England, and a research fellow at the University of Ghana.
The world – and our imaginations – are more interesting, thanks to Afi’s story being put out into the world.