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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.

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