His Only Wife
Peace Adze Medie
His Only Wife was published on September 1st, 2020. I received an eARC and finished copy from the publisher, but as always, all thoughts are my own.
Afi Tekple is a young seamstress in Ghana. She is smart; she is pretty; and she has been convinced by her mother to marry a man she does not know. Afi knows who he is, of course-Elikem is a wealthy businessman whose mother has chosen Afi in the hopes that she will distract him from his relationship with a woman his family claims is inappropriate. But Afi is not prepared for the shift her life takes when she is moved from her small hometown of Ho to live in Accra, Ghana’s gleaming capital, a place of wealth and sophistication where she has days of nothing to do but cook meals for a man who may or may not show up to eat them. She has agreed to this marriage in order to give her mother the financial security she desperately needs, and so she must see it through. Or maybe not?
His Only Wife is a witty, smart, and moving debut novel about a brave young woman traversing the minefield of modern life with its taboos and injustices, living in a world of men who want their wives to be beautiful, to be good cooks and mothers, to be women who respect their husbands and grant them forbearance. And in Afi, Peace Medie has created a delightfully spunky and relatable heroine who just may break all the rules.
This marvelously written, captivating story is a whirlwind—just when you think you have caught your breath Peace Adzo Medie launches into another scenario and speedbump for our protagonist Afi to confront. And yet every part of the narrative feels like it is in exactly the right place. Through startling twists and building conflict, this debut novel delivers a story about self-awareness and deciding when to follow your head or your heart while you are constrained by obligations and expectations.
Afi and her relationships are the driving forces of this novel, and while the plot notably transforms to keep the reader turning each page, the characters make an unforgettable impression. From the start, we learn that Afi’s life is not quite her own, and she is expected to abide by and maintain the situation she is thrust into (arranged marriage to a man in a relationship with a woman his family does not approve of) because while it is not necessarily her choice, she will live comfortably and have everything she could ever dream of. What is satisfying about this is that she does indeed acquire the luxuries and opportunities she did not have access to before her marriage to Elikem, and it is not hard to believe that she is content with her life. But ultimate happiness is what she strives for, and while it is easy to hope that she gets to that place, Peace Medie poetically keeps the reader in suspense as to how or if Afi will get there.
Family and community pressures and power struggles are significant factors in Afi’s every day life, and it is refreshing that she ultimately thinks about herself when nearly everyone she is close to (including those who could negatively affect her future if she is defiant) is thinking about public impressions and control. Our heroine doesn’t dramatically develop throughout the novel, only because through Peace Medie’s writing it feels like Afi is naturally a practical, self-aware woman. She is aware of her responsibilities and accepts the roles expected of her, because as she’s frequently reminded, how could she not be happy when everything is provided for her? She does fall in love with Elikem (she calls him Eli), and follows her heart even through discomfort and tears, until the time comes to lead with her head in order to prevent self-destruction. Afi has doubts, insecurities, and seeks advice, but she follows through on the things she says and learns to be consistent in standing up for herself, even on shaky ground.
And this type of strength is needed through every twist and turn Afi encounters. She does communicate her problems and desires (a refreshing characteristic for a fictional heroine), and when she’s had enough of the charades played by her mother-in-law or by Eli, she learns to explicitly makes it known. As she becomes increasingly less content with her relationship with Eli and more knowledgeable about how to maneuver the family politics, she considers all of her options for moving forward and ultimately trusts herself to make the best decision for the sake of her happiness.
It’s difficult not to dramatically gush about this debut novel (a tone I don’t like to employ in my reviews), but Afi is a timelessly inspiring heroine. It is possible that some readers may disagree with her acceptance of her situation and certain events she takes part in, but there is little argument to be had about her consistent honesty, sharpness, and realization that only she can determine what’s best for her.
His Only Wife “is a commentary on the value that is placed on marriage in Ghanaian and most African societies (and in many other places in the world),” Medie says. “This emphasis on marriage and its association with womanhood, places a great deal of pressure on young women and causes many to settle for relationships that are often unfulfilling and unhappy.” At its heart, the novel is a story of a young woman coming into her own and finding her voice. It also offers a unique glimpse into a very unconventional marriage, and into life in Ghana. His Only Wife “is also a feminist novel,” Medie adds, “but not in a way that might be familiar to many readers. This is because Afi’s path to finding her voice is circuitous and not always empowering.”
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.