When Rami's youngest son accidentally breaks a neighbor's car window, there's no man of the house to take care of it. Rami's husband, Tony, a handsome police chief in Maputo, has a wandering eye and is seldom home. After putting up with his behavior for more than 20 years, Rami decides to take matters into her own hands. One by one, she seeks out each of the four other women who are monopolizing her husband. Confrontations erupt into violence. The women slug it out. But what starts out as fisticuffs turns into four friendships, and all five women show up dressed alike, with their 16 children in tow, to surprise Tony at his 50th birthday party. At first, Tony flees. He then promises to abandon his mistresses. Rami won't hear of it. She demands that Tony marry them all, turning polygamy upside down.
In 1990, Paulina Chiziane was the first woman to publish a novel in Mozambique, where polygamy is legal. At her own speed, in her own way, delaying the plot for an occasional songlike poetic outburst, spicing the story with a few jawdropping African sexual customs, Chiziane weaves a big-hearted, seriocomic tale of polygamy and its price. Along the way, she explores the nature of the sexes and their roles in a marriage, and the oppression of women, as well as their sisterhood. Rami's realistic, back-and-forth struggle to believe the promises of her lying but charming husband remains suspensefully unresolved right up to the last page and the final surprise.
Chiziane's down-to-earth style in The First Wife is that of an African storyteller, sometimes rhythmical and repetitive, frequently composed of short, staccato sentences in an exclamatory rush. Rami's punchy first-person narration is littered with pearls. "My husband has become a tourist in his own home," she says, or "I followed my man's tracks, which was easy, because with each step he took, he produced a child." Her outspoken sexual politics produce succinct little firecrackers. "To have only one love in life? Baloney! Only women, forever stupid, swallow that story. Men love every day.... All men are polygamous."
Feisty and exuberant, ferociously candid, Chiziane's poetic style can't disguise the radical, iconoclastic spirit of her narrative. Boldly breaking the rules of social conduct, Rami reaches out in friendship to her husband's mistresses and teaches them economic and psychological independence. With delightful complications and unexpected plot turns, Chiziane's battle of the sexes is like none other in world literature. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle, Wash.
Shelf Talker: A wife of 20 years makes friends with her husband's four mistresses in this tale by the first woman to publish a novel in Mozambique.