"They deposited me in front of our two families. I was acutely aware of every eye inspecting me for flaws." We first meet Aki, the 21-year-old protagonist of His Only Wife, on the morning of her wedding to Elikem Ganyo, a handsome, rich businessman who is, in Aki's hometown of Ho in Ghana, widely considered to be that most universal of terms: a total catch.
The favourite son of a wealthy family, employers to many of the community, Eli is also clever and considerate, good in bed, and – get this – he’s even willing to make his own breakfast in the mornings, a cause for consternation for Aki, whose traditional values will come to be tested over the course of an engaging, quietly provocative debut.
The role of women within the family nucleus is the central concern of His Only Wife, whose title gives a clue to the predicament Aki finds herself in after accepting the marriage proposal. One early alarm bell is that the proposal didn’t come from Eli himself, but from Aunty, the powerful, bullying matriarch of the Ganyo clan who wants to use Aki – a known beauty – as bait to lure her favourite son back from the clutches of a Liberian woman the family can’t stand.
The second alarm bell rings loud and clear in the opening scene, where Eli’s brother Richard acts as a substitute during the marriage ceremony because Eli is on some mysterious business trip abroad, code language that the reader quickly deciphers before relaxing into the novel to wait for Aki to catch up.
What follows is a well-paced story of awakenings, a coming-of-age tale where the girl is already married but has yet to grow up. From the outset, Adzo Medie gets us close to Aki, a heroine to root for, naive and courageous, compliant and ambitious, loyal to her husband and his family, but not to a fault.
The author cleverly sets her protagonist on a journey full of turning points and challenges. Aki’s fortunes improve – an apprenticeship with a fashion designer, a shiny new apartment with a cook, enough money to eat in the kinds of restaurants where “some of the entrees on the menu cost more than my mother made in a month” – but her husband, meanwhile, is only sporadically available to her. The horror stories she hears about the other woman add suspense to the narrative, with a comeuppance, or at least a cold dose of reality, anticipated for Aki once she opens her eyes.
Adzo Medie is a Ghanaian writer who lectures in gender and international politics at the University of Bristol. The author of Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence Against Women in Africa, the subject matter of her debut novel focuses on the female experience in a traditional, patriarchal culture. From the male teachers who prey on their female teenage students, to the way it’s still accepted, even desirable, for men to have multiple wives, the odds seem stacked against women.
Although Eli and his other wife have a child together, Aki tells us: “And what could she possibly do to Eli if he took the girl away? No judge would side with her if she decided to take the matter to court. And even if one tried to, Eli would only have to slip him a wad of cash for a favourable ruling.”
While Aki might be a young woman searching for her voice, she crucially knows her own worth from the beginning of the book, which allows her to retain dignity in the face of being designated "a solution to a problem". The novels of Petina Gappah come to mind in this respect, as do recent debuts from Candice Carty Williams and Oyinkan Braithwaite.
In His Only Wife, there is an easy, fluid style to the writing, quick intimacy with character and a kind of innocent humour that recalls Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, though the backdrops obviously differ immensely.
One clever source of comedy comes from a greedy uncle, the kind of man who builds a private toilet for himself and then charges his family to use it. Aki also has lots of witty asides as she tries to get to grips with the changing, new money culture of young, university-educated Ghanaians. Seeing a women with a nose ring at a fancy party, she says, “If my mother had been there she would have whispered to me, ‘Why, is she a goat?’”
Throughout the book there are bright daubs of Ghanian life – kontomire and garden egg stew, the durbar at the yam festival, a neem tree, greetings and everyday phrases such as Woede or Ehn. It all flows remarkably well in a memorable debut from a writer whose frustrations with certain aspects of the culture of her homeland come brilliantly to life.