Book Club: His Only Wife

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

This book grabs attention from the first line which is always a promising sign. Published in 2020, His Only Wife is the debut novel from Ghanaian writer Peace Adzo Mezie. The book is written from the first person viewpoint of Afi Tekple, a young aspiring seamstress who lives in the small country town of Ho with her widowed mother. Afi’s life has been tough; her father’s untimely death snatched the rug from underneath their feet and sent them from a comfortable life to one of penury. In true Nolly/Ghollywood fashion, Afi and her mum receive no help from her father’s brother, and they are forced to fend for themselves. Help comes from Faustina Ganyo, a wealthy woman who gives Afi’s mother a job and a place to live. The Tekples feel indebted to her and when the chance comes to repay the favour they jump on it. All Afi has to do is marry Faustina’s son Elikem, who she has never met before, and be transported Cinderella style into wealth and comfort. Oh just one thing, Elikem is already with a Liberian woman with whom he has a sick daughter. The Ganyos claim this Liberian woman is a thorn in the flesh of the family; she has kept Elikem away from his family and must have bewitched him. She makes his life hell and is a terrible mother; she is a cow, she is a snake, she is the bride of chucky. Afi’s role is to lure Eli away from her.

Despite her trepidations Afi agrees to the wedding and is wed traditionally to Elikem who does not attend the ceremony but is instead represented by his brother. She then moves to the city of Accra where she is upgraded into luxury- nice flat, a driver, staff, regular allowances, enrolment in fashion school etc, but no husband. Personally this seemed like a sweet deal to me, but Afi has been sent there on a mission and the Ganyos are constantly checking in for progress updates. Plus Afi herself wants her husband which is understandable. Eventually Elikem blesses her with his presence and Afi falls madly in love with the sweet handsome man. However it never truly feels like he belongs to her, and the scent of the Liberian wife is always in the air. This causes Afi a lot of sadness as she searches for her place in his life, unwilling to share her husband with another woman.

This book started off really good and I was completely engrossed. The pace is nice and the writing is easy to follow which all together makes it a pleasant enough book to read. However somewhere towards the end the writing got derailed in a way; it seemed the writer got tired of painting a picture and just decided to breeze through the rest of the story. There was a lot of telling rather than showing in the final part of the book; short abrupt sentences- and then and then and then. It was quite rushed and all the facts were just dumped on us. In the later chapters the writer had this habit of fast-forwarding into the future, and then giving a summary of what happened. I did not like this. I wanted to be there in the thick of the action. There was a moment of tension between Afi and Elikem and I read through hungrily waiting for the explosion and was rewarded with “a few days after….” We skipped a whole year from the end of chapter ten to the beginning of chapter 11. I did not enjoy all of this at all and after a while I just wanted the book to end.

The plot twist (if it can be called that) at the end should have been brought forward to a much earlier point of the story and the Liberian woman’s story should have been explored more. I would have liked to see things from her viewpoint. By the time she comes into the story, the book is over and there is no time for the readers to process her as a character.

As the protagonist, I was initially sympathetic to Afi’s plight and was on her side, but as things progressed I grew tired of her as well. She was illogical and lacked common sense. I did not understand this love she felt for Elikem- maybe the writer should have taken more time to build this love for the readers. This is another example of the readers being told something rather than been shown. When Afi was talking about her heartbreak I skipped past it as it seemed so put on. I was also confused at her annoyance at the other woman. Ma’am you knew he had a woman when you agreed to marry him; in fact she was there first, doesn’t that make you the other woman?

The book is pure Nollywood- prince marries the village girl but with a twist. A lot of things came so easily to Afi that it seems unrealistic. There are also some characters which should have been developed better or left out altogether as they did not add anything to the story.

It is interesting to see the power the mother has over the whole family, and how these grown men remain under her control. This is even more surprising as the men appear to be independently wealthy. Usually this control is effective because the parent controls the purse-strings and the children do not want to be cut off but in this case the sons are instrumental in the success of the family operation so I don’t understand their foolish obeisance. The whole idea of marrying a wife for their son to get rid of another wife never made sense; did they think he would be so enamoured with the new wife and then forget the existing one? As though he is kept in a cage and has never seen another woman before. Elikem did not go to the wedding which to me suggests he has some defiance in him; he also maintains separate accommodation with the Liberian woman and never truly gives in to his family which made me wonder why he did not just go all the way and stand his ground. Another interesting thing is the dichotomy of good and evil and how both can exist in the same person. Faustina helps so many people without explicitly asking anything in return yet it turns out all the kindness is in return for slavish devotion and those who deviate from this face her wrath.

Aside from the issues mentioned, I did enjoy reading His Only Wife and I found it interesting. Nothing major happens; it is more like a gossip session with an aunt or cousin in which she is telling you all about that thing that happened in the family. It is nice, easy and pleasant. This was my first time reading a book set in Ghana and I did enjoy the peek into some Ghanaian cultures. At the risk of being rude, it is obvious that this is a debut novel, but it is a strong one and I look forward to reading more from this writer.

The writer does a good job showing the class divide, as well as the expectations of women, particularly within marriage. None of this was shocking to me, and to be honest even the first line about the groom not attending the wedding was not odd. I have not personally attended any such weddings but I have seen enough weddings in which the groom or even the couple did not attend the wedding. Strange but not that uncommon in Nigeria and I guess Ghana as well.

Ask any woman if she loved her husband before she got married or even if she loves him now.

Afi, even if he is with another woman, it is not the end of this world. Which man, especially one like your husband does not have another woman?

…I’m not interested in receiving any more advice or encouragement. What kind of marriage is this? Afi, do this and he will choose you. Afi, do that and you will win. Is he a husband or a prize? Ah ma, I’m tired, I’m tired.

I cannot end this without writing about my intense irritation at what must be one of the most irritating characters ever- Toga Pious. Ugh! He is the very embodiment of the greedy uncle that is commonplace in Nollywood- the uncle who is envious of his brother and does nothing to help his brother’s widow but is there on the day of celebration to eat and collect everything. He was a minor character but every time he appeared I rolled my eyes and kissed my teeth. I hated him and I longed for Afi to tell him to piss off. I was actually waiting for it to be revealed that he had something to do with the death of Afi’s father but alas this was not a Nollywood flick.

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