by Marilyn Heward Mills
Marilyn Howard Mills was born in Switzerland and brought up in Ghana, the daughter of a Ghanaian father and a Swiss mother. She was a practicing lawyer for twelve years, and now lives in South London with her husband and two children.
Her background probably explains her shrewd understanding of her wide, dissimilar caste of characters: she has a very discerning eye. Her writing reveals a sensitive, penetrating but tender appraisal of her peers, her elders and those traditionally beneath her in status. In CLOTH GIRL, her first novel, which is set in Ghana from 1940 until independence ten years later, she shows a wide understanding of the world order of things. Here we see the Diplomatic Service in contrast to well-educated Ghanaian men and their hopes for and about independence; and here are Christian Ghanaian families who still hedge their bets with visits to the fetish priest. There is a special place for the Ghanaian house servants who put up with the British.
The most charming character in the book is Matilda Quartey. She is a Ghanaian girl who, at fourteen, is plucked from school and given in marriage, as his second wife, to a middle aged but handsome and agreeable man, Robert Bannerman, whom she knows only by reputation. Unlike the fourteen year old bride in IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN, Matilda has absolutely no privacy in her life at all. She finds herself unable to live in her husband’s house because of the spiteful and dangerous resentment of his first wife, yet she is unable to feel welcome in her parents’ house unless she very quickly becomes pregnant in order to properly consummate the marriage (so advantageous to them) in the eyes of their world. Her husband, a busy and successful Ghanaian lawyer, although obsessed with desire for her, is above bothering about such humdrum matters as where she is supposed to live and how she can safely bring up her children. She does not share his bedroom but visits him when he sends for her. Matilda has a delightful personality and sense of humour and her circumstances are cleverly described. Marilyn Howard Hughes spares nobody their blushes.
Nor does she spare Audrey Turton, the British wife of the ADC to the Governor. Audrey’s life runs parallel but quite separate from Matilda’s. They live within a mile of one another, and yet their lives could not be more different. Where Matilda has nothing at all of her own, and sleeps on a mat on the concrete floor, Audrey is spoilt, bored, has everything she wants except her ticket home to England, and is exhausted by the heat. She is appalled and repelled by everything African, especially the colourful and friendly (but rather fly-blown) market, and she is unforgivably rude to her servants (who forgive her). She takes no part in the simple activities of the other wives in her position, doesn’t play bridge or tennis, and appears to be unable to read anything but out-of-date English magazines. She loses interest in her husband and her looks, until, after a while, her cats and her gin bottle are her only friends. However, her spoken English is good (most of the time) and her husband asks her to teach it to Matilda.
Marilyn Howard Mills shows a wonderful understanding of both women and the men in their lives. Her novel is a masterpiece.