The association of foreign spouses, by Marilyn Heward Mills: Some reflections

For Ghanaian Literature week, at Kinnareads

The association of foreign spouses is Marilyn Heward Mills’ second novel, published in early 2011,  four years after her Costa prize nominated Cloth girl. I had enjoyed Cloth Girl, and was intrigued to hear that I actually knew the author’s mother, though I had never met Marilyn herself. I was even more intrigued when I heard that Heward Mills’ second novel was to be The association of foreign spouses, as the title very much echoed the name of a real organization to which I belong here in Ghana: the International Spouses Association of Ghana (ISAG).

I wondered whether this new novel was going to be a kind of “roman a clef” – with characters who were actually people I knew. But somehow it took longer for the book to be written, and published, and it rather left my horizon, until I got a email mentioning its publication.

How could I resist? Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a copy here in Ghana, so had to resort to buying one outside.

I read The association of foreign spouses in October of this year. It was interesting, but I think more because of its descriptions being familiar, rather than necessarily because of its being a memorable novel. While reading I was constantly wondering whether certain characters were based on real people – and even though the author’s website denies this  – there is a great deal in the descriptions of people, place and events which rings true, even though it is fiction.

Some of the characters are more clearly drawn than others, with women definitely coming off better than men:

  • Eva: British, married to architect Alfred, not working, spending a lot of time on her house and garden. Definitely the main focus of the book.
  • Dahlia: West Indian British, married to high-powered lawyer Vincent, who is the “baddy” of the book
  • Margrit: German, married to doctor Kojo, devoted to her dogs and garden, but without children
  • Yelena: Russian, with twins fathered by doctor Wisdom who has a wife , runs a beauty salon in her house to earn enough to support herself and her children.
  • Auntie Gee: Alfred’s mother, and Eva’s mother-in-law – always seemingly “meddling” – at least from Eva’s point of view – yet in her own way trying to get Eva and her children to adapt to Ghana.

To some extent people in this book could be considered stereotypes, but many of the incidents described – and the atmosphere surrounding the coups and successive military governments – are actually what happened or pretty close to it. Personally I feel that the families and individuals portrayed actually lived lives at the higher end of the economic scale even one did hear that life was not as good as it had been at the time of independence.  I was also a little surprised that so few of the key women characters were working.

Ghana in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a difficult place to live – whether you were a national or a foreigner married to a Ghanaian. There were real shortages of what we called “essential commodities” – such as sugar, milk, soap, toilet paper and bread – not to speak of the not so essentials of beer and soft drinks. At times food in sufficient quantities was difficult to obtain and required considerable effort.  These were times of real hunger for many; many had the prominent neck bones, locally described as “Rawlings collar”.

I am not saying that the lifestyle my family lived during those times was completely Ghanaian – it wasn’t, but it certainly wasn’t the full-blown expatriate lifestyle either. We didn’t have the money, or access to specially imported goods that made that possible.

So I guess my reaction to Heward Mills’ The association of foreign spouses is very much an emotional one – of remembering, and reliving times which were not the best, but out of which I, along with the characters in her book, developed into stronger and more capable human beings.    I will not deny that I appreciated their struggles, and empathized with them.

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13 thoughts on “The association of foreign spouses, by Marilyn Heward Mills: Some reflections

  1. Pingback: Ghanaian Literature Week « Kinna Reads

  2. The organization you mention sounds really interesting organization! How did it get started? This book sounds interesting but it also sounds perhaps like it might not be as great if you don’t know the experience? Have you read Cloth Girl? Which would you recommend I start with?

  3. Pingback: It’s a Wrap! Ghanaian Literature Week « Kinna Reads

  4. Now, I didn’t know that she had released a second book. I guess she could not entirely get away from the average Ghanaian’s perception that all “foreigners” in Ghana are living large off the hog! I appreciate your comments. Ghana in the 70s and 80s was hard and quite tumultuous. Sometimes I marvel at how far we’ve come. Thanks for participating in Ghana Lit Week. Your support means a lot :).

  5. A really interesting read. I am a Black Brit who lives in Nigeria and who belongs to Nigerwives. An organization that was set up 30 years ago and is still going strong. The membership is close to a thousand and we are looking to have our own building where we hold meetings, provide shelter (and refuge!) for Nigerwives. The book bears an uncanny resemblance to Nigeria. In fact, whilst reading it I felt as though I was in Nigeria – presently. I also belong to a book group (that is also 30 years old) and we just read books written by Nigerian and African authors. And it was not thought possible there would ever be stories about the expat/the foreign wives in Nigeria but it just goes to show. I will be going to Ghana (Accra) for the Xmas, you wouldn’t happen to know if there are any bookshops that would stock this book? I have some friends that would like to buy some copies.

    • Unfortunately I have not come across The Association of foreign spouses here in Ghana. Basically I had to order it from the UK, which is somewhat ironic. Interesting that you are a member of Nigerwives: I remember hearing about it when I was in Nigeria – and that was in the mid 1970s! [all right, I am showing my age!]. Let’s keep in touch.

  6. Yes! Lets! I did a search on ISAG and nothing came up, so it would be good to know the history, the ups and downs and the goals of ISAG. I’ve recently been appointed to be on committee so my task for 2012 is to bring more activitiy to Niger Wives. I am thinking of letting one of the more experienced wives give a talk on Nigerian etiquette. I’ll let you know how it goes…

  7. Happy New Year to you! Just spent our new year in Accra at the Movenpick Hotel – totally beautiful!! And then a friend took us to the new boutique hotel Villa Moniticello in Airport Residential. Really beautiful hotel.
    When you have time, it would be good to read about the Accra reading group. What sort of books do you read? The book group in Lagos has been going for 30 years and read books written by Nigerian authors. But over the years, it has now has a reading list from African American Authors, Black british authors and African authors. Whilst I was there, I thoroughly enjoyed the group and enjoyed all the reads we read. A great experience!

    • Glad to hear you liked the Movenpick! It, and the Villa Monticello, seem to be the latest upmarket places in Accra – and I believe popular with expatriates and those in the higher income brackets! [Some of the rest of us get to go there when there are visitors or seminars/workshops/conferences!] The Accra Book Club is all women (though we’ve had the odd male member) and mostly people associated with American and Canadian missions – though not exclusively so. We tend to read a mixture of books – though there is usually at least one or two African authored/themed books in each year. Maybe I should do a post on the books we’ve read over the last few years?

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