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Book Review: *Wife of the Gods* by Kwei Quartey

wife-of-gods1

  • Wife of the Gods: A Novel by Kwei Quartey
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (July 14, 2009)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400067596

Back-of-the-book blurb: Kwei Quartey’s debut novel brings to life the majesty and charm of Ghana–from the capital city of Accra to a small community where long-buried secrets are about to rise to the surface.

In a shady grove outside the small town of Ketanu, a young woman – a promising med student – has been found dead under suspicious circumstances.  Eager to close the case, the local police have arrested a poor, enamored teenage boy and charged him with murder.  Needless to say, they are less than thrilled when an outside force arrives from the big city to lead an inquiry into the baffling case.

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, fluent in Ketanu’s indigenous language, is the right man for the job, but he hates the idea of leaving his loving wife and young son, a plucky kid with a defective heart.  Pressured by his cantankerous boss, Dawson agrees to travel to Ketanu, sort through the evidence, and tie up the loose ends as quickly and as efficiently as possible.  But for Dawson, this sleepy corner of Ghana is rife with emotional land mines: an estranged relationship with the family he left behind twenty-five years earlier and the painful memory of his own mother’s sudden, inexplicable disappearance.  In Ketanu, he finds that his cosmopolitan sensibilities clash with age-old customs, including a disturbing practice in which teenage girls are offered by their families to fetish priests as trokosi, or Wives of the Gods.

She is Too Fond of Books‘ review: The first scene in Wife of the Gods finds the protagonist in the middle of a sweat-inducing nightmare – neat foreshadowing to both the personal mystery that has haunted Darko Dawson since childhood and the murder investigation that tests his skills in his position as Detective Inspector.

This mystery is well-played, with the setting and local customs sharing a large role in development and resolution.  I got a good feel for the bustle of the city of Accra, with rumbling ramshackle tro-tros (public buses); Ketanu, the village nearest to where the murder victim was found (a house “had a rusted tin roof.  The walls were marred with gashes and trailing cracks.  A crooked screen door hung open with ragged mosquito netting curling off the frame”); and Bedome, a nearby compound with a religious shrine where the spiritual leader lived with extended family.

So the setting gets points, as does character development – Quartey sets up a realistic web of personal relationships between Dawson and his mentor, wife, son,mother-in-law, brother (Cairo), and others.  Dawson clearly respects his mentor, a connection that goes back decades.  His love for his wife and son is demonstrated in the way he speaks with them, and the manner in which they interact.  Contrasting these are uneasy truces with both his mother-in-law and brother.  We see solid outlines of these characters, more details will be filled in, I expect, in subsequent novels.  The tag at the bottom of the cover reads “An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery,” paving the way for future books about this cast of characters.

Even though the novel is written in the third person, the omniscient narrator seems to have a direct line to Dawson’s thought process; his character is fully fleshed out, complete with the mystery in his past, love of family that he wears on his sleeve, a little recreational drug use, and a brilliant sixth-sense-like ability to read tones of voice.  Early in the novel we’re introduced to a wonderful and unique trait of Inspector Dawson – he “feels” speech:

Darko felt the silken quality and the musical lilt of Auntie’s voice.  He had always had a peculiarly heightened sensitivity to speech.  Not only did he hear it but he often perceived it as if physically touching it.  He had on occasion told Cairo or Mama that he could feel “bumps” in a person’s voice, or that it was prickly or wet.  They were mystified by this, but Darko could not explain it any better than he could describe the process of sight or smell.

I found this so creative, and was pleased each time Quartey incorporates it: “Her voice was stretched tight like a rubber band at its limit.  Lying. She knew, or had seen, something.”  The technique is original, and not made to be gimmicky.

The author shows the contrast and tension between modern and traditional ways.  Dawson comes from Accra, the modern capitol; the murder takes place in Ketanu, a village set in their traditions.  The murder victim, Gladys Mensah was in her third year of med school; in the interim she volunteered as an AIDS outreach counselor, visiting various villages in the area to teach the ABCs of AIDS prevention (Abstinence, Being faithful, and Condoms).  She often expressed frustration about the “poverty, superstition, and ignorance” she saw as she traveled the villages and met resistance to her teaching.  Dawson wonders if she was killed in order to curtail the introduction of modern medicine into Ketanu.  The author also shows the tension between old and new in the scenes that  involve Trokosi, the virgins who have been married to the spiritual leader of a shrine in a hush-hush practice to atone for sins of her family.

When I read a mystery I don’t try to solve the case, I allow the author to do the work by unraveling the tangle of clues for me.  Quartey left some breadcrumbs that, in retropect, might have led me in the right direction if I had put any energy into it; but I prefer the leisurely pace of solving it on Dawson’s timetable, piecing the clues together through his eyes.  It was a very satisfying mystery.

I’m sharing the trailer to Wife of the Gods; guaranteed to intrigue you further.  It’s everything a book trailer should be – music, images, sparse text, and only a minute long:

tlcI reviewed Wife of the Gods as part of Kwei Quartey’s blog tour with TLC Book Tours.  The complete schedule is below; and check back for my post of August 22, an interview with the author:

The cover image shows a dress with trim of traditional Adinkra cloth made by the Ashanti people of Ghana.  I was curious about the fabric, it’s mentioned several times in the book.  If you’re looking for a fun project, here’s a kid-friendly way you can create your own Adinkra cloth.

About the author: Kwei Quartey was born in Ghana, where he was raised by his African-American mother Ghanaian father.  They were both university professors, and instilled in him a love of reading and writing.  Quartey now lives in Pasadena, where he spends early mornings at home writing, and the bulk of the day attending to patients in his role of lead physician at an urgent care center.

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