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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The First Wife

Paulina Chiziane

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To purchase The First Wife

Title: The First Wife
Author: Paulina Chiziane
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 494 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The First Wife - US
The First Wife - UK
The First Wife - Canada
Le Parlement conjugal - France
Niketche, una storia di poligamia - Italia
Niketche - España
  • A Tale of Polygamy
  • Portufuese title: Niketche
  • Translated by David Brookshaw
  • Richard Bartlett's translation, Niketche, was scheduled for publication in 2010 from Aflame Books, but does not seem to have made it into print

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing voice, lively story of struggle with male-female roles in modern(izing) society

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 16/5/2016 .
TLS . 15/3/2017 Lara Pawson
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2016 C.L.Clemens

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) careful examination of tradition clashing with modernity, most prevalently the place of women within Mozambique’s society, and within the world in general." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(M)isogynists and disloyal men are found everywhere -- and it is this universality that makes The First Wife resonate far beyond the country and continent of its setting. (...) At times, the lyrical quality of this committed translation is overwhelmed by passages that seem to have been written to educate us in a frustratingly anthropological style. At others, it feels like a rousing feminist polemic." - Lara Pawson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The First Wife is a meditation on polygamy and the ways women gain and lose agency in both monogamous and polygamous households. (...) This novel prizes community over solitude among women." - Colleen Lutz Clemens, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The First Wife is narrated by Rosa Maria, called Rami -- "a married woman for the last twenty-five years, mother of five children, an experienced woman" -- who suddenly has to face the fact that the reason her husband Tony -- police chief António Tomás -- hasn't been home very much for a while is because he has another woman on the side. Discovering her identity, Rami finds her problem is even bigger: one woman leads to another, as the dominoes fall, and it turns out that Tony really gets around:

     My Tony's heart is a five-pointed constellation. It's a pentagon. I, Rami, am the first lady, the queen mother. Then comes Julieta, the woman deceived, who occupies the position of second lady. She's followed by Luísa, the woman desired, the third lady. Saly, the woman fancied, is fourth. Finally, Mauá Salé, the woman loved, the youngest and most recently acquired. Our home is a six-pointed polygon. It's polygamous. It's a loving hexagon.
       Tony hasn't, in fact, married the other women, but he does 'keep' them, more or less -- or, as he puts it, very roughly, at one point:
You are mine. I conquered you. I bought you like cattle. I domesticated you. I molded you according to my desires
       That claim is rather an outlier -- Tony isn't nearly as controlling, or as much in control, as he would like (which is part of the fun tension of the novel) -- but gives some sense of the imbalance to the arrangements.
       Meanwhile Rami notes that despite claims that polygamy is: "nature, destiny, our culture", in this case (and surely far beyond, too), as she puts it:
It's not polygamy by any stretch of the imagination, but a grotesque imitation of a system that's almost out of control.
       The original Portuguese title of the novel is Niketche, referring to:
a dance of love that newly initiated girls do in front of everyone, in order to proclaim: We are women. We are ripened like fruit. We are ready for life !
       The novel celebrates the traditional -- Rami and the band of women she then leads want to make the best of the situation, and to serve Tony well -- but is also a dance of independence, of a greater concept of womanhood that doesn't solely define itself in realtion to a man. The women all take jobs of different sorts, for example, successfully going into business. And while they are devoted to Tony, they also take considerable charge -- scheduling the time he spends with each 'wife' and reporting to one another if there are any issues that concern them all (such as when he doesn't show any interest in sex -- a warning sign that he's found yet another woman ...).
       The woman's role is clearly defined, and Rami is never able to escape seeing herself as wife (or widow), though she does try to adapt as best she can to changing circumstances -- such as having to share her husband with other women. Nevertheless, even here it dawns on them that:
It's very hard to accept polygamy in an age when women are affirming themselves and conquering the world.
       And while this is not (yet) a novel of a clash of traditional and modern ('Western') culture -- Rami and the others proudly serve Tony on their knees ... -- there are more localized cultural clashes, such as the differences between the south (where Rami is from) and the north, a contrast in how things are done that is interestingly played out.
       Tony is an amusingly hapless anti-hero, rather overwhelmed by circumstances -- and his inability to get his way absolutely all the time (he does most of the time). Among his proposed solutions is abandonment -- at one point he figures the best thing is just to divorce Rami, but that's one thing she wouldn't go along with -- and he does have a propensity for just disappearing from view (to bizarre-comic effect when he travels far abroad, to France, without telling anywhere near enough people that he's going to be out of the country for a while ...). He does seem to have a warm heart, and he is a decent provider (though the story doesn't really explain why money is never an issue -- especially since he he doesn't seem to be a very hard-working man; indeed, Rami gives no impression whatsoever of him actually working).
       There's an odd lack of personality to many of the characters in the book: almost all function in roles, rather than as individuals, and Rami has little interest in describing them beyond, occasionally, pivotal, sometimes horrific defining incidents from their lives. Tony himself makes for an unusual prop -- worshipped, but only really coming to life in limited interaction with some of the characters, while most of the time he is off-scene (or treated like some deity that's stowed away in a cupboard between festivities). And, for example, Tony has many children -- including several with Rami -- but they are entirely background material: their existence is of some importance to the story, but their identities barely matter, and they aren't treated or presented much differently than pets or even property might be; readers are left with no sense whatsoever of them. A rare occasion when the story does become more revealingly personal is when one of Tony's 'wives' decided to marry another man, the dynamics here -- including how hard it hits Tony -- finally truly revealing and relatable (whereas much of the rest of the novel is one of incident, but -- beyond Rami -- limited personal insight).
       Rami is as close to a fully-realized character as is to be found in The First Wife, and the emotional roller-coaster she finds herself on, as well as her efforts to take the bull(s) by the horns are effective. Her frustrations -- of the limited role she (and women generally) has been raised for, with very limited schooling and otherwise taught only to devote themselves to a man, compounded then by a situation in which she can not fulfill that role as she originally expected to, because the man plays by his own rules -- is convincing, from her complaint that: "I was thrown into marriage without any preparation at all" to her acknowledgement of her own sexual desires (and questions why she too shouldn't get proper satisfaction).
       The First Wife is a lively, engaging read, the situations making for a wealth of material for Chiziane to serve up (as she does, in occasionally slapdash manner). In a way, Chiziane's lack of narrative focus is appropriate for a novel about the role of women in this society, as it presents the almost countless possible variations there are -- a realistic depiction that is probably preferable to a story that limits its characters to narrower roles. Rami is constantly torn, in countless ways, and she has an appealing way of barreling ahead -- occasionally not thinking things through -- which also adds to the variety of experiences found in what is a surprisingly action-packed novel.
       The way in which women are dependent on men, and accept the necessity of deferring almost entirely to them as described here is certainly discomifiting, regardless of cultural explanation and excuses. With her many female characters -- and there are many beyond Tony's 'wives', too -- Chiziane does depict women's lot in this society very well -- but one does wish for a perspective beyond Rami's interesting but quite limited one, especially in the presentation of many of the other characters (not least, Tony). As is, there's entirely too much objectifying of the characters in the novel, as they are treated and used more as chess pieces than actual beings.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 July 2016

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The First Wife: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane was born in 1955.

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© 2016-2023 the complete review

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