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.