I’m back with another Algonquin blog tour and this time it’s for this gem of a debut: His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie. Thanks to NetGalley and Algonquin Books for the e-ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Goodreads: His Only Wife
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Release Date: 01 September 2020
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, African Literature
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.
Note: The quotes below are taken from an advanced/unfinished copy and are subject to change in the final version.
“Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding”
I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book that I’m having a hard time organising into a coherent review, so I’m sorry if this is all over the place (and more emotionally driven than anything lol) This book took me on a wild and emotional ride that I wasn’t ready for or expecting! I have a feeling that how I feel about this book will only continue to grow (like how my feels for Normal People grew) and I will find myself constantly coming back to it and thinking about the characters and story!
Medie’s writing is simple and straightforward. She doesn’t overelaborate on details and yet she manages to make Ghana come to life and to reel you in until you don’t want to put the book down. There’s a delightful subtle humour in the writing that contrasted with the more serious themes and events that take place, but that often had me laughing out loud with its realness. What I loved most though was how Ghana has a pulse in this story. You can immediately sense Medie’s love for the country when she writes about Accra and Ho, the food and culture, the markets and malls, and the vastly different communities (urban & rural) that teem with people hustling hard to make a daily living. There was such a colourful vibrancy to the writing that I loved!
That said, there were times that I felt a sense of ‘detachment’ in our protagonist’s voice that made me think that I wouldn’t connect to the story. Safe to say that I was wrong and I was surprised by how viscerally I felt certain emotions throughout the book—mostly anger and (heartbreak) sadness. There is quite the cast of characters in this story and all of them are so complex, and you will hate to love and love to hate them in turns. Afi herself isn’t always likeable although I very much related to her and ugh, how I rooted for her happiness! Watching Afi grow from a timid ‘village’ girl who’s so unsure of herself and her new life in Accra, to a confident and sure young woman who stands up to set expectations, and who relentlessly pursues her dreams, was (to me) empowering.
Although I’ve read little about Ghana, there were many parallels to Indonesian society particularly about societal roles and family expectations (especially when you come from less well-to-do backgrounds/poverty). This book really highlights the complexities of what it’s like to be a woman in a society that still holds onto traditional values but is also modernising. I hated that a man like Elikem Ganyo can do as he pleases and society will trip head over feet to accommodate him, and yet when a woman stands up for herself and doesn’t ‘cater’ to a man’s family, she’s a terrible disrespectful person. I really disliked Eli for what he puts both women through, although I also realise that (aside from this thing) he wasn’t necessarily a bad person. His intent wasn’t to hurt anybody and although I loathe the whole ‘have your cake and eat it too’ mentality, society let him believe that it was okay and that’s his entitlement. It made me so angry to see what Afi’s mother and the Ganyo family put her through, but seeing her come into her own after putting up with their manipulation, and finally putting herself first made me feel so damn proud! Yes, the consequences for herself were heartbreaking but it takes a hell of a lot of strength to do what she did.
Can we also talk about that ending though? No spoilers, but as my personal preference doesn’t lean towards open endings, I didn’t particularly like this ending that left my feelings in a lurch. That said, I also couldn’t see it ending any other way. It would obviously be great if the ending could’ve been tied up neatly with HEA all around, but that’s not life and would be unrealistic. It was just a bittersweet and heartbreaking ending that left me feeling a bit like nobody really ‘wins’ in the end.
TL;DR: His Only Wife is a well-written and thought-provoking novel with complex characters that will compel you to love and hate them in turns. It shows us what it’s like to be a woman in a modernising society that still upholds traditional cultural values. With simple and straightforward prose, this was an easy and fast read that I really enjoyed and would highly recommend! I hope this doesn’t fall under the radar.
Peace Adzo Medie is a Ghanaian writer and Senior Lecturer in Gender and International Politics at the University of Bristol in England. Prior to that she was a Research Fellow at the University of Ghana. She has published several short stories, and her book, Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence Against Women in Africa will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020. She is an award-winning scholar and has been awarded several fellowships. She holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a BA in Geography from the University of Ghana. She was born in Liberia
Have you read His Only Wife or is it on your TBR?