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In her novel 'The Association of Foreign Spouses' Marilyn Heward Mills transports the reader to 1980s Ghana. It is a time of much political upheaval with frequent changes of leadership by way of successive military coups and success in business depends vey much on whom you know and how much you can coerce others. The Association of Foreign Spouses is not an official organisation even if it sounds like one: it's a group of four women from different parts of Europe, each one in the country because of a Ghanaian man. Eva is a British woman who married a Ghanaian man she met while they were both students in London. German Margit is married to Kojo and the couple are blissfully happy; they have no children but dote on their pets. Yelena, a Russian woman, followed the Ghanaian man who had fathered her twin boys but when she got to Ghana she learned he was already married; she remains in Ghana in the hope that one day he will acknowledge his offspring. Dahlia is also British but from a West Indian family: she's married to Vincent, a cruel man with a vicious temper. The four women act as a social and support network: they're all foreigners in Ghana and together they fill the void that would normally be filled by family.
Ghana is a colourful and fascinating setting for this story of the isolation that can result from living in a country that is not your own, and in which the customs and lifestyle are very different. Author, Marilyn Heward Mills, shows how the tumultuous political events of 1980s Ghana impact on the practical details of day to day living as well as the personal sphere. This is a country rife with corruption and profiteering; in this story the rich are portrayed are portrayed as thieves, taken from their homes and offices, often to be tortured, sometimes shot dead. There seems to be no reason to the coups; one group ousts another only to be replaced a few months later by yet another military general who changes nothing. She also shows the disparity between the lives of expats and the Ghanaians who come to work for them, their cooks, their gardeners, their drivers. Of course, life poses different problems for the somewhat privileged ex-pat women who make up the Association of Foreign Spouses. How do you learn the language in a country with so many dialects? How do you stop your overbearing mother-in-law from piercing the ears of your youngest child without falling out with her? How do you cope with the frequent days with no water coming from the taps?
For Eva these problems are the most challenging she has to deal with until Alfred, her husband, drops a bombshell, a confession that rocks her happy existence and makes her question what she is doing in Ghana. Dahlia has to deal with the increasingly brutal behaviour of her husband, Vincent, a powerful and influential lawyer. He and Alfred are friends, their relationship maintained partly through their wives, but primarily because of their business interests. Alfred has no idea that Vincent beats his wife but if he did, would he risk losing his business partner if he were to challenge him? Yelena blindly hopes for the day when the twins' father will be a proper dad to his children; she wants them to know their heritage and she believes that they should have contact with their paternal family. Ghana is a country where men commonly father children with woman they aren't married to and their wives know all about the other children but this particular man seems very reluctant to acknowledge the boys. Meanwhile, Yelena has to try to earn a living in a country where women are not usually business women, especially not white foreign women. Margit and Kojo, the oldest of the couples, lead a quiet life, blissfully happy with each other but while their domestic life is peaceful, even they do not escape the shocking impact of the political situation.
I found 'The Association of Foreign Spouses' an entertaining read on a superficial level but it's not a complete success. I found the idea of 'women good, men bad' a bit too simple, especially because most of the women are irritating in their own ways. There's also a hint of 'foreigners good, Ghanaians bad' with the locals often portrayed as clueless and lazy. All ex-pats miss things about home - family, friends, foods, the ability to communicate easily with people who not only understand your language but who understand your point of view - but I couldn't help feeling that the women's complaints about their new country were petty and stemmed from a refusal to acknowledge that they are now living in a very different culture. If anything, this novel reminds you that it is possible to be part of a mixed marriage but still regard your own race or culture as superior to another. I can't say that my indifference to these characters made me feel less sympathetic to their various plights - for these are dramatic stories - but I did find I was more interested in the wider picture of Ghanaian life and customs than in the individuals.
A few things save this novel. One is the character of Gladys, Alfred's mother, a widow who lives alone some distance from her son and daughter in law. Initially she comes across as domineering and interfering but as the story progresses she appears in a new light. She comes across as a woman who wants nothing more than to see the back of her daughter in law, while she is not outwardly cruel there is always the impression that she would back her son whatever his misdemeanours, and it is difficult to conceive that she is not aware of Eva's views on certain aspects of child rearing. Later, though, this loud and opinionated Ghanaian matriarch shows the foreign women that they could learn a lot from an old fashioned Ghanaian lady, practically and emotionally.
The novel is rescued somewhat with a number of dramatic twists, most notably around Dahlia's attempts to escape Vincent. The depiction of the abusive relationship, while hard-hitting and realistic, is one of the highlights; the stoic Dahlia bravely puts up with her husband's repeated infidelities and takes his beatings while trying to protect her children. It is well known that many women find it difficult to leave an abusive relationship: imagine how hard that would be to do if you're in a foreign country where women don't leave their husbands and, indeed, for a woman who defied her family's advice when she married, effectively cutting herself off from their support.
While 'The Association of Foreign Spouses' deals with some rather heavy subject matter, it's a frequently uplifting novel with plenty of warmth and humour. The gripping story makes the flaws in the characterisation less important and overall I found this to be a novel that kept me interested until the end.