As far as opening lines go, “Elikem married me in absentia” is about the best way to rouse curiosity. There are fewer ways to command your reader’s attention than to reveal the heart of the plot in the very beginning, and then let it masterfully unravel in every direction.
His Only Wife sees a 20-year-old Afi get into an arranged marriage and tasked with having to ‘win’ her husband over, from an apparently dreadful girlfriend who has a deathgrip on said husband: Elikem Ganyo. The book, through Afi’s narration, takes us through her coming of age journey as a wife trying to solidify her place in her husband’s heart, as a woman simply trying to survive Accra, and the near impossible challenges that come with those identities.
The author, Peace Adzo Medie’s use of first person gets us up close and personal with Afi, allowing us to grow with her. What is easy to confuse for naivety at first, is soon revealed to simply be unfamiliarity with her situation. As soon as Afi gets the hang of her surroundings, it is clear that not only is she not a timid character, she also has a very strong sense of self. But even this self awareness does not stop her from falling prey to the absurd demands veiled as ‘wifely duties’. She feels compelled to cook complex meals from scratch, is careful not to enjoy sex too much, and holds her tongue about her husband’s girlfriend far too often. The piece de resistance of it all, probably being that she decided to be fully devoted even before she actually met him. The horror of all of this is realised when it becomes clear that the author is merely mirroring the stifling expectations that come with womanhood and marriage in our own communities.
Medie infuses this conundrum with so much humour that there are barely any bouts of somberness. And it's an effortless humour; one rooted in making acute observations rather than actually cracking a joke. Sentences like: “she was so close that I could count the tiny bumps that had formed around her hairline when the hairdresser braided her hair too tight,” that throw jabs at African braiding culture. Only someone who has experienced the scalp pulling of a braider whilst sitting down on a mat for hours would understand. It’s not that Medie is trying to be exclusionary, but by wielding this sort of contextual humour throughout the text she subtly invites African women to scoot forward as the primary audience for the book.
As far as mirroring is concerned, we see several portrayals of the African woman. The vaguely named Aunty, which although a common title given to older women in many African communities, also indicates a sense of unfamiliarity and coldness. It fits perfectly with the evil mother in law trope, a staple in African storytelling. She is arguably the book’s antagonist. And since what we know of her we find out through the lens of Afi, the choice to name her “Aunty” cleverly encourages detachment to get us to root for Afi instead. Although that is hardly a difficult choice considering Aunty is controlling, extremely defensive and has a habit of lording money over people to get what she wants.
The reason Afi finds herself in a peculiar arrangement is because Aunty and the Ganyo’s cash in a favour in exchange for the financial help they provided for Afi and her mother. After the death of Afi’s father, she and her mother lost almost all their possessions, leaving them at the mercy of Aunty’s seeming generosity. As patriarchy would have it, the death of a father or father figure sometimes renders families helpless. The show of disparity between the two families would almost be on the nose if the gall wasn’t so common. Perhaps a little more interesting was the treatment of Afi when she returns to her mother’s home in Ho, after getting acquainted with riches. The tension between withholding judgment to a life she’s lived for many years and refusing to admit that she would rather be in her “flat that had huge overhead tanks to store water,” instead of at her mother’s house, which was “at the mercy of the Ghanian government, which rationed everything, including electricity and water,” is more than apparent.
Medie masterfully weaves together otherwise bleak themes in a hilarious, plot driven story. The events unfold at a pace not only easy to follow, but also with enough space to pause and pick up where you left off if need be. Although to be frank, the non-committal way it's written did very little to stop my voracious interest in Afi’s story.