Set in Ghana before independence, Cloth Girl goes beyond a careful exploration of the lives of three women forced into circumstances they would sooner avoid, to carefully contrast the social dynamics between the Diplomatic Service, the well-educated Ghanaian men and their hopes for independence and the “common” Ghanaian who strives to achieve the esteemed social status many long to rid themselves of.
Seizing their chance to be associated with the prominent Bannerman family, the Lamptey family accepts a marriage proposal from Lawyer Bannerman for fourteen year old Matilda. At fourteen, Matilda is forced to withdraw from school and given in marriage, as a second wife, to middle aged Robert Bannerman, whom she knows only by reputation. Disadvantaged by her youth and her gender, Matilda does not have a say in her marriage and has to compete with the lawyer’s first wife – the sophisticated and learned Julie who is spiteful and harbors resentment towards Matilda. Lost and abandoned in her marital home, Matilda knows she will not be welcome in her parents’ house unless she very quickly consummates the marriage with a pregnancy to ensure that her family’s meal ticket remains secure. Matilda has a delightful personality and sense of humour that quickly makes her the reader’s favorite character. Through her us of clever description and her uncomplicated diction, Marilyn Howard Hughes aptly draws the reader’s sensibilities to recognize the perils of the quest for social recognition.
Marilyn Heward-Mills offers Audrey the British wife of the assistant to the Governor as a glaring contrast to the life Matilda leads. Although they live within a mile of one another, their lives could not be more different. Audrey is determined not to be happy with life in the colony and hates Alan (her husband), for bringing her into this culvert of uncivilised people. Where Matilda has nothing of her own, and sleeps on a mat on the concrete floor, Audrey lives the opulent lifestyle of a British wife in the colonies. And yet still, she is fed up because she doesn’t have her ticket home to England. In her quest to find an escape, she resorts to heavy drinking and smoking and takes no part in the activities of the other wives in her position.
An unlikely bond forms between two women so removed from each other yet driven together by their desire to form their individual fortunes. As we follow this young woman from Jamestown, who can barely string a sentence together, offer hope to an aristocratic woman who has walked on the verge of madness, we better appreciate Heward-Mills’s ability to intricately weave the lives of her characters to grasp the reader’s attention.
Although Cloth Girl is set in the Gold Coast, in a time before the existence of Ghana as we know it today, there are many timeless emotions and themes that resonates with our society today. The perils if an older man’s unflinching desire for a younger woman and the psychological and social implications of such desire are not alien to Ghana today. One is also pulled into the glaring financial disparities between the Lamptey’s and the Bannerman’s. One wonders if there is hope for a growing middle class as Heward-Mills novel exposes similar trends prior to independence. I highly recommend this book for all who love to read and for those who are concerned with the question of freedom, love and respect. This novel inspires the reader to ask many tough questions about our society and to burst the proverbial bubble many of us have created.