I wrote this review some time ago (at the point this book first came out in 2016), but for various reasons it has not yet been published. To avoid any further delay, I decided to publish it here include it on my blog and hope that it encourages you to purchase a copy of the book (available for purchase from the publisher and the usual array of other booksellers) or see whether your local library has one for you to borrow.
Review of The disobedient wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley
Published by Cinnamon Press, 2016
What an oppressive and constrained world the two main characters, Harriet and Nargis, inhabit in this book. Harriet is a young, bored British expat wife, struggling to make sense of her new surroundings in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan. Nargis is a young, harried Tajik woman, struggling to make ends meet to care for her family and keep her repugnant and unwanted second husband away.
The disobedient wife is billed as the first English language book to be set in contemporary Tajikistan, the poorest former republic of the Soviet Union, located in Central Asia and bordered by Afghanistan and China. It tells the story of these two women as they grapple with the fundamental problem of finding their place in society and in the world. Their lives intertwine when Nargis comes to work part-time for Harriet and both share the story-telling, although we primarily hear Harriet’s perspective through her journal entries as well as narrative.
I found the opening chapters somewhat stark, painting a truly depressing picture of living conditions in the Tajik capital and creating a strong sense of “them” (the Tajiks) and “us” (the expats) that in some respects was reminiscent of a bygone European colonial era. Harriet’s American acquaintance Patty plays the role of superior foreigner, unable to comprehend that the world looks and feels different from her native Texas and unwilling to make any effort to get under the skin of her Tajik surroundings.
Harriet’s discomfort with this artificial delineation of worlds grows as the story progresses but she never quite manages to see Nargis as an equal. For her part, Nargis doesn’t seem to express a desire to have Harriet as a friend. Both women are more occupied by the men in their lives: Harriet with cosmopolitan workaholic husband Henri, whose increasingly frequent and sometimes unexplained absences only serve to heighten her sense of isolation; Nargis with the memory of her beloved late first husband as well as the legacy left by second husband Poulod, whom she has controversially walked out on, despite being married off to him against her will and having to deal with his abusive behaviour.
As the novel progresses, what had seemed like an insurmountable cultural divide between Tajikistan and the “West” begins to soften; the claustrophobic atmosphere beginning to lighten. The depictions both of people and surroundings become more balanced and sympathetic, and it was at this stage that I found myself gripped, immersed in the pages as they sped by. Harriet slowly becomes more self-aware, and despite the odds, Nargis is able to assert more control over her future.
I won’t give away the eventual plotline but I was relieved – if slightly surprised – by the bittersweet ending. I had come to care about both women in a way that surprised me because of the somewhat unpromising start, and was very tense as I read through the last few chapters where their destinies unfold. Both were deserving of a fresh start, but given the circumstances of Harriet’s closeted expat life and the societal expectations weighing on Nargis, I wasn’t at all sure whether or how they would succeed.
As someone who knows Tajikistan well, it was a great pleasure to experience a strong sense of place emanating from the novel, and I could easily visualise the scenes author Annika Milisic-Stanley creates. Some hints as to the country’s potential are offered through, for example, attractive portrayals of the rugged beauty of the surrounding countryside and the images of Harriet’s garden on a summer’s evening, but I did wonder whether anyone unfamiliar with Tajikistan would ever seriously contemplate a visit after reading this book. It does all seem so bleak.
I was slightly unconvinced by some of the characters, who seemed to lack some of the “greyness” in their behaviour that make us the inconsistent and irrational humans we all are. As noted above, the American Patty was practically grotesque in her hatred of her life in Tajikistan and her attitude towards the “natives”. Poulod is unequivocally the “bad guy” with his black leather jacket and penchant for violence. At the other extreme, taxi driver Zavon, Nargis’ old school friend, is noble and sympathetic, ready to help out with a moment’s notice and never with any other motive than kindness. Overall, however, this does not detract the reader from the bigger picture Milisic-Stanley presents.
Whilst the location of The disobedient wife will be unfamiliar and even alien to many fiction lovers, the overarching theme of female redemption traverses the setting and allows the reader to readily engage with the novel. Told through the eyes of two ostensibly quite different women, their lives separated by the accident of where they were born, it is in fact the similarities that enable Harriet and Nargis to alter their trajectories that makes The disobedient wife so compelling.