The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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His Only Wife
His Only Wife
by Peace Adzo Medie

Hardcover (1 Sep 2020), 288 pages.
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ISBN-13: 9781616209155
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Critics:
  

"Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding."

Afi Tekple is a young seamstress whose life is narrowing rapidly. She lives in a small town in Ghana with her widowed mother, spending much of her time in her uncle Pious's house with his many wives and children. Then one day she is offered a life-changing opportunity—a proposal of marriage from the wealthy family of Elikem Ganyo, a man she doesn't truly know. She acquiesces, but soon realizes that Elikem is not quite the catch he seemed. He sends a stand-in to his own wedding, and only weeks after Afi is married and installed in a plush apartment in the capital city of Accra does she meet her new husband. It turns out that he is in love with another woman, whom his family disapproves of; Afi is supposed to win him back on their behalf. But it is Accra that eventually wins Afi's heart and gives her a life of independence that she never could have imagined for herself.

A brilliant scholar and a fierce advocate for women's rights, author Peace Adzo Medie infuses her debut novel with intelligence and humor. For readers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Candice Carty-Williams, His Only Wife is the story of an indomitable and relatable heroine that illuminates what it means to be a woman in a rapidly changing world.

Excerpt
His Only Wife

Eli came at 1:36 p.m. I knew the exact time because I was sitting and staring at the analog clock on my phone when the doorbell rang. The sound startled me and I dropped the phone; I hadn't heard the lift stop and open on my floor. My mother rushed out of her room and mouthed "Go" while pointing to the door. I hesitated; for some silly reason I wanted to fish my phone from under the chair before I answered the door.

"Ah, open the door," she said with sound this time.

I stood up and smoothed my dress over my hips. My armpits were moist; it was a good thing that the fabric was light and patterned so that my sweat stains would not be visible. My feet felt heavy so that I needed extra effort to lift them. I imagined that I looked like a marching soldier. The frown on my mother's face told me that she was displeased. The bell rang a second time. She flashed her eyes as if they had the power to physically push me toward the door. My hand was so damp with sweat that it slipped off the round doorknob when I tried to turn it. I wiped my hands on my dress and tried again. This time I was successful.



Eli broke into a smile that reached his eyes when he saw me. He was leaning against the doorframe like someone who had been waiting for a long time to be let in.

"Please, good afternoon," I managed to say in a near whisper. Should I shake his hand, should I hug him, a kiss on the cheek? Last night I had imagined hugging him but now no greeting seemed right for this almost-stranger who was also my husband. It didn't help that he was jauntily leaning against the doorframe and openly staring at me, his smile intact.

"Afternoon, Afi," he said, his eyes never leaving my face. I lowered my eyes to look at my hands, and then my feet. Anything to avoid the intensity of his gaze.

"Please come in, Fo Eli," I heard my mother say from somewhere behind me. Only then did he look past me into the flat. I breathed a soft sigh of relief and stepped aside to let him in.


He was seated in one of the armchairs, his feet splayed, his arms resting on the armrests, and his lips slightly curved in a smile. In his hand were two large cellphones. He had a beard; I didn't remember him having a beard before. It was so neat that it looked as if it had been trimmed by someone using a measuring tool for accuracy. I assumed that the same person had trimmed his hairline. He had on a white shirt folded up to his elbows and tucked into black trousers. The brown leather belt at his waist matched his shoes.

"Let us bring you some water," my mother said. I was thankful for her words because I would have otherwise just sat and stared at him like a fool. I followed her into the kitchen as though we both needed to carry a glass of water. I decided at that moment that I hated the open floor plan of the flat because I really wanted to say something about the situation to her but Eli could see and hear me from the sitting room. So instead I took a jug of water out of the fridge and she a glass out of the cupboard, all without speaking to each other. I set the two items on a small silver tray and carefully walked back to the sitting room with my mother behind me. I placed the tray on the side table closest to Eli and poured the water into his glass. He lifted it to his lips and I went back to sit on the edge of the couch with my arms folded in my lap.

"Woezor," my mother said when Eli set the glass down.

"Yoo."

"How was the journey?" she asked him in Eʋe.

"It went well."

"Your siblings?" she continued.

"They are well."

"Woezor," my mother said.

"Yoo."

"You are the ones looking after people," she said, nodding her head.

"You as well."

"You are the ones who have worked so, so, so, hard," she said, still nodding, as though agreeing with herself.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie. Copyright © 2020 by Peace Adzo Medie. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. How does the opening sentence reflect the rest of the novel? What does it lead you to expect about how Afi and Eli's relationship would develop?
  2. How much do Afi's mother and her other relatives influence Afi's decision to marry Eli? Do you think she would have agreed to the union if this pressure were absent? Do you think women in your society are also subject to pressure to get married? If so, where does it come from and what does it look like?
  3. Do you think Afi's decision to marry Eli was the right one? Why?
  4. Other than their wish to see Afi and Eli married, are there other similarities between Afi's mother and Aunty?
  5. What are the ways in which the novel shows the effect that Afi's social class has on her choices and on the way her relationship with Eli unfolds?
  6. What does marriage mean to each of the women (Afi, Mawusi, Yaya, Evelyn, Afi's mother, Aunty) in the book? What do they expect of a marriage and what are the reasons for their expectations? Do their expectations change as the story progresses, and what explains the change or lack thereof?
  7. How and why does Afi's relationship with her mother differ from Mawusi's relationship with her own mother (Daavi Christy)? How does Afi's relationship with her mother shape the decisions she makes?
  8. How has Afi's mother's unwillingness to be open about sex, and her strictness regarding boyfriends, affected Afi's romantic relationships?
  9. Afi, Muna, Evelyn, Yaya, and Mawusi are all dealing with society's expectation of how they should behave. What are the similarities and differences in what they face and in how they respond?
  10. How is women's physical beauty defined in the novel by the Ganyo family and by others who comment on Afi's appearance? How does colorism factor into this definition?
  11. Do you think Afi's decision at the end of the novel reflects evolving attitudes toward marriage? How so? What do these evolving attitudes look like in your society?
  12. What does Eli's treatment of Afi during her pregnancy (after she returns from Ho) say about his character?
  13. Do you think Eli's mother and siblings enable his behavior? How do they do this?
  14. What do you think of Eli's approach to his relationship with Afi? What should he have done when his mother proposed marriage to Afi? What choices do you think he should have made after they were married?
  15. Do you think Afi makes the right decision in the end? Why do you agree or disagree with what she does?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Algonquin Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Addictive melodrama reminiscent of a soap opera masks incisive commentary on finding independence, the pitfalls of polygamy and the reality of Ghanaian class divides in this hugely readable debut novel.

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21-year-old Afi is a talented Ghanaian seamstress eager to study fashion design, but her life is upturned when her mother agrees to an arranged marriage with a virtual stranger, the son of a wealthy local businesswoman, on her behalf. Afi is whisked from her small town and placed in a luxury apartment in the capital of Accra. It soon becomes clear that Afi's husband Eli is already in love with someone else, a woman his family disapproves of, and that his family has set up his marriage to Afi to lure him away from her.

This "other woman" lingers on the periphery for almost the entire novel, and I thought this was a very clever narrative decision. It allows her, the rival who is never seen but whose presence is always felt, to remain as elusive to the reader as she is to Afi. It also emphasizes that the contention between her and Afi is born wholly from the influence of others, and not through any fault of their own.

There is clear critique here of the widespread practice of unofficial polygamy in Ghana. Afi and Eli's traditional wedding is recognized by their community but it is not legally binding in the same way a modern ceremony would be. Men having multiple wives in a non-legal capacity is commonplace, so Eli believes himself to be free to continue pursuing relationships elsewhere and thinks that Afi should accept this without question. Without ever adopting a judgmental tone, Medie highlights the ways in which the practice of locking women into moral contracts without proper legal protection or reciprocal opportunities upholds patriarchal structures, enforcing longstanding division between genders and classes.

Medie brings this West African nation's rich and complex culture to life on the page, showing the contrast between the traditional customs still upheld by many (particularly in more rural areas) and the increasingly cosmopolitan way of life spreading throughout the capital. This paves the way for the author to explore wealth disparity and how much emphasis is put on a family's standing within the wider community. Afi's relatively poor, widowed mother agrees to marry her daughter off for the prosperity and prestige it will bring them, and Afi feels the burden of this, trapped by her obligation to provide for her loved ones. Making it clear that money equals power within this society, Medie shows that it is only as Afi begins to gain her own financial security that she finds the confidence and means to defy those who seek to control her.

This arc that Afi follows throughout the novel is a pleasure to watch unfold as she transforms from a powerless, naïve girl who shyly submits to her husband to a bold and confident woman who stands defiant. It is particularly satisfying that her autonomy is ultimately won not through explosive drama but the cultivation of her own career, relationships and self-worth.

As Afi finds her voice and the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable conclusion, it becomes increasingly clear that our heroine is perhaps not so different from her supposed enemy. The implication that the two women have been pitted against each other precisely because they share a similar attitude of rebellion against the status quo is loaded with further thematic potential. It is here that the book may have benefited from a little more depth, when the "other woman" should arguably have been given her moment in the spotlight at last. Still, for its relatively understated approach, this is a propulsive novel that flips between easy-read escapism and meaningful social commentary with impressive ease.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

Foreword Reviews
Afi's charm makes her an empowering example of modern womanhood...Its message bold and its viewpoint appealing, His Only Wife is an inspiring novel.

New York Times
Peace Adzo Medie’s mesmerizing debut novel lives up to both the power of its first sentence and the promise of its author’s first name. This is not a book to read with one eye on a beach volleyball tournament; it’s a story to soak up in silence, on a long, cloudy afternoon when you have time to think...At a time when adventure is scarce, Medie gives you a lot to look forward to, think about and be grateful for.

Minneapolis Star Tribune
A fierce and funny debut novel...A deeply engrossing chronicle of contemporary Ghanaian womanhood.

Shelf Awareness (starred review)
Medie gives Afi a voice that winningly combines insecurity, wisdom and dignity...The dramas of Afi's marriage and various family conflicts offer an entertaining plot rich with humor, but it is the story of the strong woman in a challenging and changing world that will capture readers' hearts. His Only Wife is a memorable novel of personal growth and choosing one's own destiny...[A] winning debut.

Publishers Weekly
[W]hile the relentless pacing leaves little room for reflection on her emotional turmoil, Medie succeeds at channeling Afi's desires and desperation. This stirring tale sings when Afi learns to flex her limited power.

Booklist
In her debut novel, Medie writes with a precise rhythm that builds the reader’s anticipation. Themes like deception, ambition, love, and values drench the pages with conflict that evolves into an emotional rollercoaster.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[D]elightful...A Crazy Rich Asians for West Africa, with a healthy splash of feminism.

Author Blurb Wayetu Moore, author of She Would Be King
A hilarious, page-turning, sharply realized portrait of modern womanhood in the most infuriating of circumstances. A gem of a debut.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Contemporary Ghanaian Women Writers

In her novel His Only Wife, Peace Adzo Medie captures the clash of tradition and modernity in present day Ghana. Medie belongs to a long line of talented women writers who show the country's rich culture and history to be bountiful sources of inspiration. Here are just a few of the most exciting Ghanaian women on the current literary scene.

Ama Ata Aidoo Ama Ata Aidoo was born in a Fanti village in 1942. Her father, the village chief, established the first school there and encouraged her to pursue education from a young age. Now a successful novelist, poet and playwright, she has served as Ghana's Minister for Education and founded the Mbaasem Foundation, an organization that actively supports African women writers. Her best-known works include Our Sister Killjoy and Changes: A Love Story. She was the subject of The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo, a documentary film directed by Yaba Badoe (see below).

Yaa Gyasi Yaa Gyasi was born in Mampong in 1989. Her family relocated to the United States when she was a child, and she was raised in Alabama. Her debut novel, Homegoing, was released to international acclaim and a host of major awards when she was just 26 years old. In 2019, Homegoing was named one of the BBC's "100 Novels That Shaped Our World." Transcendent Kingdom, released in the US in 2020, is her second novel.

Ayesha Harruna Attah Ayesha Harruna Attah was born in the Ghanaian capital of Accra in 1983. A literary magazine run by her parents and Toni Morrison's work served as early inspirations for her, and she currently has four novels to her name, including Harmattan Rain and The Deep Blue Between. Outside of her many writerly achievements, which include an MFA in creative writing from NYU and being named the 2014 Africa Centre Artists in Residency Award Laureate, Attah spent several years studying biochemistry.

Yaba Badoe Yaba Badoe is a Ghanaian-British filmmaker and author, born in Tamale, the capital city of Ghana's Northern Region, in 1955 and now based in London. Badoe's varied career has taken her across the globe, studying at Cambridge, working as a civil servant in Ghana, and teaching in both Spain and Jamaica. Her documentaries are critically lauded. Her fiction includes a novel for adults, True Murder, short works in anthologies and three books for young readers.

Elizabeth-Irene Baitie Elizabeth-Irene Baitie writes predominantly for children and young adults. Born in 1970, she had a passion for storytelling from an early age but veered towards science throughout her education. After studying in both Ghana and the UK, she opened her own medical laboratory, of which she is the director. She has still found time to write several books thus far, including A Saint in Brown Sandals and The Lion's Whisper, picking up several major awards along the way.

Lesley Lokko Lesley Lokko was born in 1964 to a Ghanaian father and a Scottish mother, and much of her childhood was spent in Accra. A fully trained architect, she has worked as a teacher in countries across the globe and even established the first dedicated postgraduate architectural school in Africa. This hasn't stopped her from enjoying a prolific writing career, with eight novels currently in publication, including Little White Lies and Sundowners.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim Nana Oforiatta Ayim was already a respected and multi-award-winning art historian and filmmaker when she published her debut novel The God Child with Bloomsbury in 2019 – adding yet another string to her bow. Drawing on her own experience of being educated in Germany and the UK as a child, the novel sets out to examine "how families, and nations, overcome the limitations of the past through the cycles of generations."

Portia Arthur Portia Arthur was born in Kumasi in 1990. She studied publishing at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, and later secured a job at the media house Pulse Ghana. While reporting a story, she was distressed to discover how high illiteracy was among children in her local community. This led her to set up "The Book Per Child Initiative," which provides young people with educational materials and creates reading groups. She also wrote her own children's book, Against the Odds, with the idea of using proceeds from book sales to assist young people with their tuition fees.



Photos:

Ama Ata Aidoo in The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo by Yaba Badoe, Fadoa Films 2014

Yaa Gyasi: © Peter Hurley/Vilcek Foundation, from Penguin Random House

Ayesha Harruna Attah at Politics and Prose Wharf, Washington, D.C., by Slowking4 (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Yaba Badoe at the 2015 Zanzibar International Film Festival, by Rashde Fidigo (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Elizabeth-Irene Baitie (cropped), by Alispaz (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lesley Lokko

Nana Oforiatta Ayim at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in 2015, by ThompsonArmah (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Portia Arthur, by Sistaginna (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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