His Only Wife by Peace Ado Medie – rags to unhappy riches in Ghana

Library Journal Best Fiction Book of 2020. Reese Witherspoon Book Club choice. New York Times Notable Book Of The Year. Time Magazine Must-Read Book of 2020. The impressive list of accolades for His Only Wife suggest that Peace Ado Medie’s debut novel is a dazzling work of fiction from a bright new talent.

It will definitely appeal to readers who enjoy a rags to riches story with a feminist twist but don’t want anything too heavy. That lack of depth was, however, my major reservation about this novel, proving too much of a barrier to counteract all the aspects I did enjoy.

In His Only Wife , Medie takes the idea of an arranged marriage and gives it a fresh twist. Instead of the usual scenario where the bride is forced to marry an older, gross, brute of a man (in the vein of The Girl With The Louding Voice), here we have a beautiful, but poor, young woman persuaded to marry the attractive, wealthy business man, Elikem Ganyo. Afi Tekple barely knows Elikem but the marriage will make her family financially secure and give her entry to the glitzy lifestyle she has dreamed of achieving.

If this sounds too good to be true, you’re not far off the mark. Afi does get a swish apartment in the capital city of Accra, complete with servants and more money than she’s ever had before.

But there’s one thing missing from this fairy tale – the husband. Elikem Ganyo misses his own wedding (sending his brother as stand in) and only makes an appearance in the apartment six weeks after the wedding. Elikem, it turns out, is in love with another woman and they have a daughter. Afi was the ploy used by his disapproving family to break this entanglement. The question is whether Afi will settle for playing second fiddle or insist that she is Elikem’s only true wife.

The set up sounded promising enough but the issues of independence and self-determination never really got going. Afi had the potential to be an engaging character, a young woman who has to cast away her naive view of the world to achieve happiness. But I didn’t warm to her, actually finding her irritating in the way she keeps falling back on the same argument that she’s his only real wife.

The one aspect of His Only Wife I did enjoy was the depiction of the culture of Ghana. Medie’s love for this country, its markets, customs and language shines through clearly.

Kente cloth

This is a novel where details about clothing and food fill almost every scene. As always when I read novels set in countries that are unfamiliar, I ended up searching out images of kente cloth ( a highly colourful textile made from strips of silk and cotton with handwoven cloth) and Slit (a long fitted skirt which hugs the body) and the top called a Kaba. The combinations of patterns and colours are stunning.

I don’t think I’d care much for Ghanian cuisine however. Okro soup might be OK as long as it’s not the version which includes goat meat ( I don’t eat meat) but I’m not enthused by akple, a dish which consists of fermented balls of corn flour, cassava flour, water, and salt, or fufu, a mash of boiled cassava mixed with plantains or cocoyams.

If only the rest of the book had been as fascinating as the setting.  I feel guilty about saying that because Medie writes very well, in a flowing style that is easy to read, full of colour but mercifully light on adjectives and linguistic flourishes. I have a feeling if she keeps up this standard, she’ll enjoy a solid fan base in coming years.

His Only Wife by Peace Ado Medie: Footnotes

Peace Adzo Medie was born in Liberia and educated in Ghana. She has an MA in International Studies from Ohio University and a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.

She is Senior Lecturer in gender and international politics at the University of Bristol. Her research examines gender, politics, and conflict in Africa. Her book, Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence against Women in Africa, was published in March 2020 by Oxford University PressHer debut novel, His Only Wife, was published in September 2020 by Algonquin Books.

This was book number 4 for #20booksofsummer 2021. It wasn’t included in my original list because I hadn’t expected my library reservation to materialise so quickly. The “rules” of #20booksofsummer are so flexible that such an omission doesn’t matter so I don’t feel too bad about claiming it in retrospect.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

13 thoughts on “His Only Wife by Peace Ado Medie – rags to unhappy riches in Ghana

  • July 3, 2021 at 3:12 pm
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    That does sound a bit disappointing especially after some excellent African reads (Adiche’s work, The Girl with the Louding Voice, etc.). I won’t go out of my way to get it but will pick it up if I spot it in a charity or second-hand shop as the setting and detail appeal.

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  • July 1, 2021 at 2:10 pm
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    Do you think we are unrealistic in our expectations of African literature? When you think about it they probably have the same proportion of middlebrow writers as we do. Obviously, I don’t know whether arranged marriages are the norm in Ghana, but Afi seems a bit spineless when she is obviously on a good wicket. I think from Jane Austen on we were persuaded the better option was the love match, but people all over the world make a go of ‘sensible’ marriages.

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    • July 1, 2021 at 8:29 pm
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      I’ve been thinking about your question “Do you think we are unrealistic in our expectations of African literature? There could be some literature that pays close attention to the unique traditions of storytelling from that part of the world but that isn’t what Medie is doing here. She uses a very contemporary style so I think its reasonable to expect a well constructed narrative and characters with a clear sense of place

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  • July 1, 2021 at 5:25 am
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    I’ve just got this one myself, so I’ll come back here to read your review when I’ve read it.

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  • July 1, 2021 at 4:44 am
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    I had the same reaction to this one! The premise was full of promise but the execution just kind of fell flat. The setting was glorious, but otherwise there was nothing that really stayed with me.

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    • July 1, 2021 at 8:30 pm
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      Good to have my thoughts confirmed, I was worried that I was being too harsh

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    • July 1, 2021 at 8:30 pm
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      I suspect she is going for the more popular end of the reading market – treating issues with a light touch

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  • June 30, 2021 at 11:47 pm
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    I’ve been tempted by this one at the library a few times, but now there’s a monstrous hold list for it! What do you think would have changed your sense of being disconnected from the character? Was it simply too hard to accept that she would accept being one of his wives rather than his only wife?

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    • July 1, 2021 at 8:36 pm
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      She is in fact his only wife, since she is the only woman with whom he has gone through a marriage ceremony. She makes it clear she won’t share him with anyone. What would have changed my attitude to her? I think it comes down to the quality of the writing rather than the plot elements

      Reply

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