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I just finished this 560 page novel and I’m not quite sure where to begin. So many thoughts! First things first, Cloth Girl is the debut novel for lawyer turned author Marilyn Heward Mills. It was shortlisted for one of UK’s prestigious Costa first novel award in 2006.
The brief synopsis: Matilda Lamptey is a 14 year old girl in 1930s-1950s Accra, Gold Coast eager about her schooling and her future when Lawyer Bannerman, a wealthy respected lawyer presumably with distant European ancestry who has been educated in England, spies her and takes her for a second wife. Thus ends her childhood and ensues the expected jealousy and rivalry with the first wife, refined and sophisticated Julie, who like her husband is from a well-to-do family and has also been educated in England. Intertwined is the story of Audrey, the unhappy alcoholic disaster-waiting-to-happen wife of Alan Turton, an assistant to the Governor at the Colonial Office, whose life has also screeched to a standstill having being uprooted from her beloved England to this tedious life as a colonial wife and to the unbearable stifling climate she finds herself in.
I was eager to read this novel because it is set in a Ghana I am unfamiliar with–Ghana at the eve of its independence from the British. I was soon engrossed in the novel, in its characters, its emotions, its smells, and its traditions. However, the novel also really got under my skin and made me totally miserable as most of the main characters were miserable with their lot in life. Audrey’s oh-so dreadful depictions of her life in this uncivilized world, her husband Alan’s various failed attempts to make her happy, Julie’s disdain that her husband would take another wife – an uneducated village girl at that, Lawyer Bannerman’s realizing that he may be an English educated lawyer and all but he is still an African to the powers that be, Matilda’s mother dealing with her ungrateful child, and Matilda of course who has all rights to be miserable but bravely deals with what life has thrown her way.
I could empathize with each and every single one perhaps except Lawyer Bannerman. He annoyed me the most. More so than Audrey and her negativity regarding the uncivilized, dirty, stupid natives she found herself surrounded by.. Why would that be? Well, after he tells Julie, his first wife, that he is going for a second wife, she responds “This is precisely what I hoped to avoid by marrying an educated man like you. Now you too want to behave like every other uncivilized man in this city.” And when she runs into Matilda later on she tells her “Why my husband has decided that he must marry again is quite beyond me….I am sure that it has something to do with that disgusting animal lust that resides deep in every male. Unfortunately, all his breeding did not manage to eradicate that baseness from him….But I will not allow his desires…to interfere with the plans that I have for myself, my children, or my husband. And I will not allow some ignorant bush child to do so either.” I feel her though of course she didn’t need to insult Matilda like that. What is the point of feeling superior, espousing your distant European ancestry, your English education, your Christianity when you are just going to turn around and be morally debased? It isn’t enough that you have had several mistresses, you have fathered one of their children, and now you see Matilda, a child, and must have her too?! And when she has borne you 5 children in less than a decade, children that you don’t even interact with – why should you, you re just the sperm-donor – you no longer send for her except to cook you native dishes as you have your English speaking first wife to present at functions and a younger replacement in the bedroom. Ugh! Don’t get me started on Mr. Lawyerman.
Matilda’s family is another that I understand but don’t understand. Total disconnect. Yes, Lawyer Bannerman is a wealthy, respected man, and yes Matilda is fortunate (I suppose) to even be his second wife, because where else will she have the opportunity to elevate her status in life, and that of her extended family? I get that. But she is fourteen! When her family tells her of the marriage proposal and that they were going to accept it, Matilda begins to protest only to have her mother cut her off: “Listen here, you ungrateful girl, you will be fifteen soon…You are old enough to have children. You are a woman now….This is a good offer and we will accept it. We cannot ask Lawyer to wait. Don’t you thing that there are several others he could marry?” And when she protests that she is afraid of the lawyer, her uncle retorts “It’s not a bad thing for a wife to be afraid of her husband”. And as she stands stunned at the news her aunt-in-law states “you will have everything that you need. You are such a fortunate girl”.
Later on in the novel, after she has been discarded like used toilet paper by her husband, I mean when he no longer sends for her, she laments to her favourite Aunty Dede who advises “…your days as favoured wife are over, eh? …to be honest with you, I am surprised that it has lasted this long….look on the bright side; you have more freedom and more time to yourself. Don’t take it personally, that is how they are. After all, which man is satisfied with one woman?…You have to distinguish between life and your husband. He is not your life. You have your own life for which you alone are responsible. He is not responsible for your happiness”.
This reminded me of a discussion I had had with an African man a couple years ago who insisted that my African girlfriends who were marrying White men left and right were doing so because they could not achieve their true ultimate goal of an African husband. He insisted that we had fooled ourselves with our “enlightenment”, that we had thought of ourselves as European women, and now with all our airs we couldn’t catch a real African man because we didn’t know how to behave properly. He went on that it was sad that we did not go to our mothers and our grandmothers for their wisdom to learn how to be real women, to figure out our real purpose on earth and instead had let the West run us astray. After all, we both couldn’t wear the pants in the house and he didn’t want to come home to an argument.
Needless to say, we no longer talk! I’m not going to insult the relationship our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers have had with their husbands but I don’t get what the point of quietly suffering is. The curse of Eve be cursed. If it is expected that “boys will be boys” and “a man can’t have just one woman”, then why the rivalry between co-wives or the hurt at the existence of a mistress. Why should that matter if a woman’s sole purpose is to have children who would then be the source of her happiness and contentment with life. Therefore I conclude that these women are lying through their teeth and for all I care the Schwarzeneggers, Weiners, Clintons, Spitzers and company of this world can take their tomfoolery elsewhere. E no be so?
Anyway, back to the novel. The next contradiction is the relationship between Christianity and traditional values. Do you discard all that that your fore-bearers taught you in favour of another’s culture all in the name of religion? Like it or not, religion is cultural. So I suppose that’s why Lawyer Bannerman and men like him have little qualms marrying their first wives both in Church and traditionally and their subsequent wives traditionally only as the Church will not bless these additional marriages. After-all, did not their grandfathers have multiple wives? Is that not their culture?
I also understand the reliance of Matilda’s family on fetish priests and how she struggles not to participate but to be true to the Church. I can imagine it must be difficult to yo-yo between fetishism and Christianity, to straddle between two very different worldviews, but that is the reality for most Africans today. I remember when we were younger someone had cut one of the table-mats at home. When no-one confessed to the deed when confronted my mother cursed us that whoever did it if they didn’t confess on the spot would wake up with their mouth twisted to the side. I know I didn’t do it, but I was so afraid to go to bed that night, afraid that I might wake up the next day to the gruesome sight of someone’s mouth twisted off to the side. On another occasion, my father cut down an Indian almond tree planted in our yard because his mother, my grandmother, insisted it was the meeting place of witches and who wants them in one’s backyard? And whenever anyone dies or suffers a misfortune, the first thought is who did they wrong? Who cursed them?
Back to the novel with its historical backdrop of the Second World War in which many Ghanaian men fought for the British in Burma then returned to Ghana and realized that freedom is good for the goose just as it is for the gander and contributed to Ghana’s struggle for self-determination and independence. I thought it was fascinating how Lawyer Bannerman belonged to that group of affluent Ghanaians who were willing to wait patiently and allow the British to recognize them as equals whilst that rogue, Nkrumah, who wasn’t even educated in the elite British schools but rather a Negro school in America, emerged as the leader of the youth arguing for self-government NOW!
Last but not least, I cannot ignore that as much as Audrey’s tales are annoying, hers is simply the story of a woman who is defying expectation to bear forth children, and refusing to conform to life as a pleasant, obedient colonial wife who doesn’t bring shame or scandal to her husband. Then when Matilda finally takes a stand against her husband by whom she has felt humiliated and against her mother with whom she simply disagrees with I feel so proud even though of course it means she would be the one to suffer for her insolence, after all which self-respecting man apologizes to his wife? “Who the hell does she think she is?” in the words of Lawyer Bannerman.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read and I would whole-heartedly recommend it even though I often wanted to skip over Audrey’s part of the book.
Next: Spoiler Alert
You’ve been warned…
Earlier in the book, one realizes that Alan Turton, Audrey’s husband, seems to be intrigued by Matilda. Then, when Lawyer Bannerman begins to no longer call for her she starts to pick up on how Alan talks to her, looks her in the eye, engages her in discussion, touches her on their few chance encounters and soon her heart is aflutter with a sensation unlike any other she has felt. When it happens, it comes as no surprise, and to be frank, I was rooting for them because it seemed they could have made each other happy. Alan finally with a child and Matilda with someone who loves her.
I appreciated this twist in the novel because of its historical truth. It would be interesting to study the impact of sexuality on colonialism, honestly. At least in Ghana, historically it had been very common for European men to marry African women producing prominent families who were important politically and economically. This was of course in the centuries before the British made a colony of the territories. With the British and their colonization, these relationships became increasingly frowned upon to the point that in the early 1900s officials actually issued an edict that forbade Europeans employed by the colonial administration from having relationships with African women. I suppose, if you want to be seen as the ruler, the superior being, you can’t cross that barrier between the colonizer and the colonized by sleeping with them and having families with them of all things. Hence the importance of shipping European women from home out to the colonies to service the sexual needs of the European men.
But of course, with “boys being boys” and “which man is satisfied with one woman”, the European men continued to have affairs, this time clandestinely, with the African women. Which makes me ask could interracial sexual relationships have been part of the impetus for self-determination. If European men had to be colonized so as not to engage in sexual activity with the African women, yet continued to do so anyway thus bringing shame upon the women they no longer married as well as undermined their authority could that have been another ember in the stokes for independence…that these men who call themselves superior cannot even abide by their own rules and keep their hands off our girls? Goodness, that’s a thesis right there!