In brief, The Disobedient Wife tells the intertwined stories of Harriet Simenon, expatriate wife of the rich and distant Henri Simenon and Nargis, her local nanny and maid. It is set in Tajikistan and although the lives of the two women seem initially very different, as the story unfolds you see how many similarities there are.
I was initially drawn to The Disobedient Wife primarily because I've never found a novel set in Tajikistan before and it was a country that I knew nothing about. While I was reading I was struck with a similar feeling to one I'd had while reading Emily Dugan's Finding Home: Real Stories of Migrant Britain recently; how is it possible that there are people in the world who live in situations where their entire family sleeps in one room, where their water routinely stops working and they just have none, where they have to worry about their children starving, while people like Harriet (and to a lesser degree, myself) swan about with the lights on in every room, wasting things left right and centre and being entirely oblivious? This is something that the novel addresses very well, as throughout the story Harriet comes to understand more about Nargis and her situation.
In the beginning I didn't think that I'd like Harriet; initially she seemed like a bit of a stuck up bitch, but as the story went on I started to see things in her that I liked. Ultimately my favourite thing about her was that she wanted to understand. She didn't just sit with her friends, saying mean things about the locals. She actively tried to think about how things might be for them, rather than just dismissing them all with stereotypes, and for me it was her desire to be empathetic, even if she didn't always manage it, that made me really latch on to the book. I also really identified with her struggle to get people to see her as more than just a mother and a wife. She has really lost her sense of identity after moving to Tajikistan with Henri and having two kids who he doesn't seem to be the least bit interested in. He refuses to see her as anything other than a wife and mother but she wants to go back to work and do something useful. There's a really affecting bit where she talks about how she doesn't feel like she's a very good mother and I've absolutely been there with having those feelings. By the end of the book I felt like she and I had a lot in common, which I never would have predicted happening at the start.
I also loved Nargis as a character. I thought she was amazing - a really strong, independent, resilient woman in a culture which seems to be very much into women knowing their place and serving their men. Some fairly terrifying stuff happens to her in the book (and before the story starts) and yet she just gets up and gets on with it, and supports her three kids and figures out how to get stuff done. She was my favourite, and her story was surprising in so many ways. There was no part of the book where I knew what was going to happen next with her.
The last paragraph of the book really struck home with me and contains the message of what the story is really about I think. I don't think it's too spoilery (I've replaced the bits that might be with ellipsis), but just in case consider yourselves warned:
Whenever I feel frightened of the future...I think of her. What would Nargis not be able to do in Britain? What could she not achieve without tradition and poverty holding her back? Her trials were so much worse than anything I have had to face, yet she prevails. She inspires me forward...and gives me the determination to succeed. And so I willIt reminded me that no matter how much we may complain about this country, we are the lucky ones for so many reasons, and I'm thankful for the reminder.
If you are a person who likes books then you should read this, but particularly books about womens' stories and struggles and the things people from other cultures and countries have to deal with on a daily basis. I'm glad I hadn't posted my End of Year Survey yet, because this will be going in as one of my 2015 favourites.
You can (and should) buy The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic - Stanley via the publisher's website here.
Thanks again to Annika and Cinnamon Press for allowing me to review this book!