The Perfect Wife
Penguin Books Aus
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Kitty Hamilton is arriving in Tanganyika with hopes of a fresh start with her husband Theo. The two of them have been married for a long time but they have been separated by the second World War, during which Theo was a pilot. And then afterwards, he had trouble readjusting to life..and then came the scandal that rocked their marriage and made Kitty the subject of gossip and talk. Made them the subject of gossip and talk, something Theo and his wealthy titled family despise.
Then Theo accepted a job in Africa, working for the Groundnut scheme where the British government decided to grow cash crops such as peanuts in Africa for export in order to ‘feed the world’. Kitty has learned some basic bush nursing skills and some Swahili to prepare, thinking that she might be able to do something useful. However when she arrives she realises that all Theo wants her to do, or expects her to, is socialise with the other English wives down at the ‘club’, organising events. Working with the locals, or making herself useful, is strictly discouraged.
But Kitty finds a way. She begins helping at a local Catholic mission feeding prisoners and helping tend their various illnesses and wounds. As things between her and Theo disintegrate amid the failure of the Groundnut scheme to get off the ground successfully, Kitty finds solace in the mission and the people that work there and the people they provide for. She finds herself drawn to a mysterious man named Taylor for reasons she can’t really explain.
The wild and foreign land gets under her skin and so do the people. But it’s also dangerous and as her husband clashes with local people over a bad decision, it’s going to bring heartbreak…and freedom.
The Perfect Wife is the most recent novel by Katherine Scholes who, although residing in Australia now, was born in Tanzania and bases a lot of her books there including this one (although it’s set before the area was called Tanzania). Colonial-Africa is becoming one of my favourite settings in novels – I’ve read quite a few of them recently and the attempt by the British to recreate a glamorous, high-society lifestyle for the workers who went to live there clashes with the nomadic village life of the native people. This story revolves around a post-WW2 scheme by the British to grow peanuts in Africa for export, despite information that the climate is utterly unsuitable to such a crop. It’s yet another example of attempting to force a result on an area by the introduction of something foreign. It was attempted in Australia too, in earlier times, as the British attempted to alter the soil and surrounds in order to grow what they were familiar with in a country that possessed an entirely different climate. They also introduced various things from home – such as rabbits. And we all know how that went. In this book, they plan to do a similar thing, introducing European bees which would not only have an effect on the local bees but also greatly offend the local people, who regard them as sacred.
Kitty is Australian-born, growing up on a farm before heading to England as a teenager in order to further her study of art. She meets and marries Theo a son-of-the-Lord-of-the-Manor type and they survive the second World War together but a scandal rocks the marriage thereafter, leading to the fresh start in Africa. Theo is clearly traumatised from his time in the war as a bomber pilot and his character is unstable and contradictory. At times he appears to want to reconnect with Kitty but mostly there’s a lot of distance between them. He drinks a lot (this seems a common theme, in every book I’ve read with ex-pats in Africa) and the pressures of his job are only adding to his fragile state of mind. He’s responsible for something that’s slowly tanking spectacularly because it was never going to work in the first place. I really didn’t like Theo, even though I could see how his upbringing and the pressures of war had made him the person he becomes in the novel. However I didn’t find him all that appealing even before the war and when he was shunning his privileged lifestyle. There was just something about him that I couldn’t warm to and he and Kitty seemed grossly unsuited. She was a country girl from Australia and was reminded of this at every opportunity by her mother-in-law, who made it very obvious that she considered Kitty beneath them. She was clearly out of her depth both in being married to Theo and also in living in Africa and lunching at the club and socialising with the other wives of high ranking Brits. She wasn’t interested in that sort of life, always being on guard, always doing and saying the right thing, wearing the right clothes. She was still a country girl, still an artist. She was happier in loose, practical clothing, exploring the area or helping at the Mission.
I felt that the scandal was built up a lot in hype but when it was revealed it was almost a bit anticlimactic but I do realise that I’m looking at it with the eye of someone who is born in this era and in this country and lives an entirely different life to that of Theo and his parents. This was a time where women were supposed to act a certain way, especially those of a certain class. Kitty isn’t one of them and when the act is revealed, it seems to only reinforce what her mother-in-law already thought of her. Despite the fact that it didn’t have the impact on me that it probably should have, I did really enjoy the story of Kitty’s art teacher Yuri and why he’d fled Russia. Might be time to look for a few books that deal with that part of history I think.
But if you’re looking for a book set in Africa post-WW2 then you really don’t need to look any further than this one. It’s a great read.
Book #246 of 2013