Review 2131: Literary Wives! His Only Wife

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

My Review

The death of Afi’s father years ago moved her and her mother from the middle class to poverty. Her uncle refused to give them a home even though Ghanaian custom decrees that a room in his house belongs to them. If Aunty, a wealthy local businesswoman, had not taken them in, they would have been homeless.

Now Afi has agreed to marry Aunty’s son Eli, a man she doesn’t know. His family hopes that a marriage to Afi will get him away from his Liberian girlfriend, with whom he has a child. They claim she must have bewitched him.

Afi marries Eli in a traditional wedding by proxy because he is away on a business trip in Japan. His brother Richard stands in and also takes her to her new home in a modern apartment in Accra. But Eli does not appear for some weeks. Afi has nothing to do except clean the apartment (even though there are people to do that) and shop. So she, who worked as a seamstress back in her village, decides to study fashion design.

Eventually, Eli comes to the apartment, but it is clear he is living elsewhere. However, Afi begins to fall in love with him and becomes determined that he will treat her as his wife.

This novel posed difficulties for me, and it was hard for me to tell if they came from cultural differences or not. The biggest was with the treatment of Muna, the girlfriend, referred throughout the book as “that woman” or “the Liberian woman.” After all, Muna came first and has Eli’s daughter, but Afi never once acknowledges that Muna has a prior claim, presumably because Eli hasn’t married her. Afi, after all, entered the marriage knowing she exists.

Second, most of the action of the novel revolves around a weak man who tells lies to avoid conflict.

I realize the novel is about Afi learning who she is and how much she owes to her family as opposed to herself, but after all, she ends up with a business that was essentially funded by her husband. She learns to stand up for herself but at the expense of Muna and her daughter.

There are other things in the novel that are interesting, such as the tension between tradition and modern marriage. Also, the writing is lively and engaging. But if Medie intended to write a feminist book, as I might assume from her Gender Studies background, she doesn’t really succeed.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Afi, coming from a small village and a traditional marriage ceremony, arrives in Accra seeming to expect a traditional marriage, as evidenced mostly by her concern to always have food prepared for Eli even though he never tells her when he’s coming and her attempts when he is there to wait on him. She also has constant tension between what is expected of her by her family and what she feels comfortable providing. Because of the unique situation she married into and also some culture shock, she has a hard time getting her bearings in the big city, especially as Eli doesn’t talk to her about things like money, what he’s doing about his girlfriend, and so on.

Although Eli doesn’t seem to want Afi to wait on him hand and foot, like she tries to do in the beginning, he isn’t honest or open with her and (major spoiler!) we infer from the ending of the book that he was planning a polygamous marriage as soon as his mother died. How he could think this solution would be acceptable to Afi is hard to grasp.

It’s hard to understand whether the aridity of Afi’s early married life is because she is wealthy or because of the differences between living in the modern big city and the traditional countryside, but it was a relief when Afi started with her studies.

Later on, when her marriage becomes more “normal” after the birth of her son, the novel isn’t very specific about the couple’s day-to-day life, but Afi seems to spend very little time with child-rearing or house management and most of her time running her business. Her relationship with Eli is better, but he still doesn’t tell her the truth or speak with her about important things. He also at one point tries to order her to behave a specific way. Theirs may be a modern marriage in terms of Ghanaian culture, but it certainly isn’t by our standards.


14 thoughts on “Review 2131: Literary Wives! His Only Wife

  1. Rebecca Foster March 6, 2023 / 1:52 pm

    We expressed a lot of the same misgivings, but it sounds like you enjoyed the reading experience more. From the cover onward, it seemed like there were going to be two female protagonists, but we were stuck with Afi instead. This was my third Ghana-themed read this year, so that at least has been interesting, to explore a different culture a bit more.

    • whatmeread March 6, 2023 / 2:14 pm

      Not much more, though. What were your other Ghana-themed books? Maybe I need to read a different one.

      • Rebecca Foster March 7, 2023 / 6:00 am

        What Napoleon Could Not Do and Fledgling (though that is a memoir by an English woman who was only living there temporarily).

      • whatmeread March 7, 2023 / 10:29 am

        OK. Maybe I’ll check one out.

      • Rebecca Foster March 8, 2023 / 2:17 pm

        And I’ve just started a novel about a Ghanaian family in London: Maame by Jessica George.

      • whatmeread March 8, 2023 / 5:48 pm

        Might be interesting. I’ll wait for your review.

  2. Naomi March 6, 2023 / 2:07 pm

    So true that Eli was lying to Afi to avoid conflict. I can’t decide how much of his weakness to fault him for, though, because I don’t know what it’s like to feel all that pressure from family members in a culture I know very little about. I also wonder how much he knew of what Afi had been told.
    I also wondered what he was saying to Muna and what their relationship was like. Would she have been okay with being a second wife?

    • whatmeread March 6, 2023 / 2:21 pm

      I don’t know what he thought was going to take care of things, as he kept assuring Afi and I’m sure Muna. I assume he meant his mother’s death, and I also assume he intended to try to talk the women into a polygamous marriage. How else would he settle the situation? But he should have known Afi wasn’t going to go for that, even if Muna would. I don’t know if Liberia allows polygamy, do you? That was where Muna was from. Ah, it’s against the civil law but allowed by custom.

      • Naomi March 6, 2023 / 3:15 pm

        True… he kept telling Afi that it would all be okay. But what was his plan? Maybe he was just trying to buy time.

      • whatmeread March 6, 2023 / 4:11 pm

        Maybe he just thought it would fix itself. Sometimes I think that’s how guys think.

      • Naomi March 6, 2023 / 5:40 pm

        Haha! Maybe!

  3. FictionFan March 6, 2023 / 3:30 pm

    The treatment of the first girlfriend certainly doesn’t sound particularly feminist! I think I would probably have the same issues as you raise with this one. However it’s always interesting to catch a glimpse of a different culture, even when it’s quite hard to get into the mind-set.

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