I don’t know about you but I always look out for novels set in the country of my parents’ birth, Ghana or written by Ghananian authors. So it was a joy to discover Marilyn Heward-Mills’ debut novel Cloth Girl, which is set in the 1940s, when Ghana was known as the Gold Coast.
Matilda Quartey is the novel’s plucky heroine, who at the age of fourteen is given in marriage, as a second wife, to a rich, sophisticated Gold Coast lawyer Robert Bannerman. For her family, it is an opportunity to be associated with a prominent family in Accra, not to mention all the material comforts such an association would bring. For Matilda it is an abrupt end to her childhood and her dreams. Not only that, she has to endure the jealously of Robert’s first wife, Julie who cannot understand why her Cambridge University-educated husband would want to enter into polygamy. Matilda, on the advice of her Auntie Dede and best friend Patience, strives to make the best of her situation by being a good, obedient and compliant second wife, which in addition to her beauty, which first attracted her husband, makes her a much favoured wife.
Elsewhere, in Accra’s European district, we are introduced to Audrey Turton, wife of civil servant Alan Turton, a good friend of Robert Bannerman. Audrey finds life in the Gold Coast very hard to endure, the overpowering heat, the dust, the geckos and ‘the natives’ make her yearn for home. This is in addition to the boredom of being a housewife in the colonies, where there is precious little to do except, lounge at the European’s-only club, organise parties and help out on the social committees. As a result, Audrey descends into alcoholism, while her husband watches in helpless despair.
Eventually, the two women Matilda and Audrey meet and find their salvation (of sorts) in one another. Audrey begins to teach Matilda to speak English, one of her dreams she had abandoned to marry Robert. Through the lessons, Matilda begins to find a confidence in herself that lies outside being a wife and mother which leads to her standing up for herself before her husband. Audrey, seeing that even Matilda can have such confidence, does the same to her husband Alan which has lead to some very interesting consequences.
For me this is the point, where the story gets problematic because I saw Audrey’s character as being very unconventional and free-spirited, therefore likely to do whatever she wanted, when she wanted. So it was hard to understand that it took teaching Matilda, make a life-changing decision for herself. This plotline seemed like a convenient device to attempt to develop a relationship between Matilda and Alan, which for me didn’t work either. In fact, much of the events that took place after Matilda begins her English lessons a seemed to have been thrown for good measure and were too quickly sewn up as the novel drew to a close. I almost suspect that someone did a very heavy editing job, as there was so much that could have come out from the ensuing storylines. It’s a shame if that is the case, because Heward-Mills clearly spent a lot of time on the characters in the first half of the book. However, these did not detract from what was a very enjoyable read.
My favourite moments were the ones portraying Matilda and her family and the Gold Coast traditions, some of which I recognise as being still in practice today. The scenes with family members visiting the fetish to resolve various issues from childlessness to curses were amusing and also a tad frightening considering the implications of such acts. Such scenes also served as a commentary on the tension between the acceptance of Western and Christian values and traditions and the cultural traditions of the Ga people. Robert Bannerman is a perfect example of one who is caught in this tension. For example, his decision to make Matilda his second wife astonishes some of his counterparts, as they think he should be above such ‘base’ behaviour given his educational background and social standing. And as the Gold Coast faces political change, with demand for self-rule gathering pace, Robert, a self-confessed lover of all things English finds himself in position where he needs to decide whose side he is on, both at home and socially.
Cloth Girl is not without its faults but for a first novel it is very good and very moving in some parts. I loved the setting, Ghana’s colonial history has always been of interest to me, especially just prior to independence. It’s reminds of my mother’s stories when I was growing up and also that I am long overdue a visit to the land formerly known as Gold Coast. Definitely recommend!