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The Disobedient Wife

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Two Women, Two Wives, Two Lives... 

The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

Through Harriet’s journal, we see Tajikistan through the eyes of an ex-secretary and diplomat's wife.  She is blissfully unaware of the underground Islamism that threatens the stability of the iron regime and ignorant to the hardships that face the ordinary people in her employ.

By contrast, Nargis is a young, single mother supporting two children and elderly parents, tainted by scandal for leaving her abusive second husband. Harriet helps her start a business and Nargis starts to lift herself out of poverty, only to face new obstacles, becoming entangled with drug traffickers who threaten her life...

Rich with sense of place and deeply humane, Milisic-Stanley brings the acute observation of an artist and social anthropologist to bear on this moving and compelling story of how two women survive and thrive in difficult circumstances.

290 pages, Paperback

First published November 1, 2015

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About the author

Annika Milisic-Stanley

1 book10 followers
Annika Milisic-Stanley was born in 1975 to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, and grew up in Britain. After graduating from the School of Oriental and African Studies, she worked in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. Annika lives in Rome. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe.

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Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 reviews
Profile Image for Jennifer S. Alderson.
Author 25 books628 followers
October 12, 2016
The Disobedient Wife is one of the most powerful, compelling books I’ve read in a long time. I feel as if I’ve been to Tajikistan and gotten to know the two strong women driving this novel as they try to find their place in the world. Nargis is a lower class Tajik woman living in the slums of Dushanbe and Harriet is a pampered expatriate residing in a gated suburban community.

The author’s descriptions of people, place, culture and events are exquisite and captivating, yet sometimes frustratingly depressing. The contrast between the well-manicured, primarily expat neighborhoods and their crumbling inner city counterparts are continuously emphasized, as are the hardships of living with continual food and power shortages, post-communist economic depression, a rise in domestic violence, the mafia-controlled heroin trade and a corrupt government.

Though I’ve never been to Tajikistan, the author’s descriptions of Dushanbe are reminiscent of the rotting Communist-era apartment buildings, neglected infrastructure, and somber tree-less inner city squares I’ve seen in poorer parts of Russia, China and Nepal.

Nargis, maid and nanny to Harriet’s children, is the character whom most readers will care the most about. Despite an abusive husband and disapproving community, she does all she can to provide for her children and instill them with hope. She is also the one who reminds us to appreciate the hidden beauty of a place and the small successes in life, and celebrate them. I’ve met so many Nargis’s on my travels, wonderfully strong women trapped within the confines of their culture, unable to choose their own path without risking being shunned by their family, friends and community. Her story ends perhaps too well in comparison to other local characters in the book, but as a reader I’m grateful; I needed her story to end on a positive note.

Harriet is the embodiment of the well-meaning expat/volunteer whose inability to actually affect change within her surroundings leaves her feeling useless and incompetent. Though she desperately wants to help local Tajik women, she unwittingly sees them as improvement projects and evaluates their presumed needs and desires through Western eyes, unable to completely understand the pressures placed upon them by their culture and community’s expectations. In the end, the roles are reversed and she is the one drawing strength from Nargis.

I truly cared what happened to these women, especially Nargis, and was almost sad to see their stories end.

For me, this beautiful, heartbreaking novel encapsulates how it feels to be an expatriate, from the initial joy and delight in learning about a new land and culture to the inevitable heartache of having – no, wanting – to move on, purposefully allowing friendships and connections to die off. “As time passes, I feel more reluctant to call. I would rather forget the pain of it all, keep her as a fading memory.” I often felt as if I was reading a soulmate’s description of how it feels to move on to a new destination after building up a life in a foreign country: we say goodbye while wondering what, if any, lasting impact we’ve had on our temporary homes. “All traces will be erased until the Dutch tulips I laid last September rise above the earth to bloom in April and pronounce that I really was there. The language, learned and badly spoken, is already fading from my dreams…”

The author also understands how long-term travel can change your very being, instilling a sort of restlessness that makes it difficult to settle down anywhere. “We belong to a stateless state, an international diaspora, cut off from our origins by the changes that have taken place in our absence as much as by the relentlessly dull sameness of it all when we return.” Reflections such as these are scattered throughout Harriet’s journal entries, deftly exposing the primarily reason many expats find it so hard to go back ‘home’.

Harriet’s thoughts about expat life stirred up so many memories for me of people left behind and as well as adventures past. It made me wish I could go back – even for a moment – to all of the places I’ve been in this crazy world and just say hello to the people I once knew there and remind them that I’m still around and do think of them once in a while. In particular, the last chapter of this book conjured up a rush of nostalgia and longing I’ve never before felt when reading fiction – quite an achievement!

Ultimately, this is an uplifting, poignant story of hope and understanding that I highly recommend to anyone, expat or not.
Profile Image for L Y N N.
1,255 reviews70 followers
June 6, 2016
Full review @ Smoke & Mirrors: http://books-n-music.blogspot.com/201.... Loved this book. We reviewed for the Literary Wives online book discussion group, but I loved not only the depictions of marriage, but especially the relationship between Nargis and Harriet. Thank goodness Harriet was able and willing to get to know Nargis as much more than just a "servant." That relationship did them both a world of good! I admit I was petrified that Pouloud would return, with the potential for truly devastating results, but he was destined for other confines! And I'm glad!! He finally, maybe, got what he deserved for being such a horrid human! And Henri! Yuck!! This book is proof that any person can be unhappy in any marriage, no matter what it may appear to be to outsiders!
Profile Image for Marieluise Niehus.
16 reviews1 follower
August 27, 2016
This was an absolutely wonderful read, so rich in characters, culture, landscape. A very gripping contemporary story touching on women's issues in an area just after the collapse of the Sovjet Union. What did I ever know of Tajikistan? The book surely paints an impressive picture of the difficulties and struggles of the people, but also the ignorance (arrogance?) of the better off Westerners. And yet, it seems women's issues only differ in degrees ...
Profile Image for Terry Tyler.
Author 27 books566 followers
April 12, 2016
Reviewed by me as a member of Rosie Amber's Review Team

I enjoyed this book very much indeed, it's excellent and so unusual. It's set in 2007/8, in Tajikstan, one of those countries that used to be part of the USSR; I'm ashamed to say that I didn't know where it is, but looked it up (it borders China and Afghanistan).

The Disobedient Wife of the title could refer to Harriet Simenon, ex-pat wife of a Belgian diplomat who is unhappy in her current surroundings, or her home help/nanny Nargis, a young mother who has suffered much over the years; her first husband, who she loved dearly, died from cancer caused by toxic waste, and her second husband was violent. Under Tajikstan tradition, Nargis is seen as a fallen woman because she left him; he kept their son with him. I like book titles that could refer to more than one aspect of a book; it might also apply to a friend of Nargis who rebels against her controlling husband by taking a lover, a decision that has terrible consequences.

Nargis's life is one of harsh drudgery, but she's a fighter and I loved her character. Aside from the fact that the story is so well planned out and beautifully written, I was fascinated by the insight into the lives of the people of this country, and the effects of the release from Russia's control.

At the beginning of the novel, English Harriet comes across as shallow, selfish and self-obsessed, but as her own marriage runs into difficulty and her friendships with her ex-pat friends are shown to be superficial, her relationship with Nargis deepens, and she begins to understand her strength, and examine her own way of life.

The story is written most from alternating points of view of Nargis and Harriet (some of Harriet's is written in the form of her journal, which gives yet another insight), with occasional chapters looking at Harriet's revolting ex-husband, who becomes involved with some dangerous people in an effort to better himself.

I was completely engrossed all the way through this book. There's plenty going on, it's quite a page-turner, and it's as well written as any best seller by an established writer (and probably better than many). Highly recommended, I think it would be enjoyed by readers who love gritty crime/real life drama and more emotional women's fiction alike, as it's a mix of these two genres. Big thanks to the author for educating me about this country, too.

Profile Image for Karen.
1,779 reviews33 followers
July 14, 2016
The Disobedient Wife is told through two main characters: Harriet, from Britain, married to a business man who is working in Dushanbe, the capitol of Tajikistan, and Nargis a Tajik woman working as a domestic for Harriet. I really enjoyed this book from both views of an expatriate and a local.
The Book's main topic revolves around the domestic abuse a lot of women in Tajikistan are subject to, and a loss of the equality that they had attained under the Soviet Union (but also discussing some of the difficulties of life under the Russians).
37 reviews10 followers
August 13, 2016
I am the author, so obviously I think it is a great read!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
744 reviews12 followers
November 16, 2016
This absolutely amazing novel is set in Tajikistan, telling the stories of two women: Nargis, a Tajik nanny and maid who was once widowed and then risked shame and the loss of one of her children to leave an abusive man whom she did not love. Her employer, Harriet, is in Tajikistan with her husband and two children, there temporarily due to his job. Harriet and her children want for nothing, having wealth to allow them every want or need. Nargis lives in a tiny shack with two of her children, her parents, and her 18-year-0ld brother. Bathroom and bathing facilities are outside of their home, whereas, ice freezings on the interior walls during the harsh Tajikistan winters. They have no money for meat, lucky to have enough flour and vegetables to feed the family each week, as opposed to Harriet and her family who pour out full glasses of milk and throw away tons of uneaten food. Nargis risks having to see her ex-husband, who painfully attacked and stabbed her with scissors prior to her leaving him, about once a week to go visit her youngest son. Harriet has her children with her, but typically wants nothing to do with their day-to-day care.

Harriet’s POV in the novel is written in journal form, which slowly and increasingly reveals her depression about living in Tajikistan, her longing to be home in England and her worsening depression over the changes in her marriage and the sense of having no purpose. Meanwhile, despite her poverty, missing her youngest child and her shaming from having left her husband – Nargis carries on. Nargis manages to purchase a shop of her own to sell grocery-type goods, only to have most of her profit stolen by her father, lives in fear of her ex-husband, but still, presses on with dreams and hopes for her and her children.

There are so many amazing things about “The Disobedient Wife,” I’m really not sure where to begin. Nargis is truly my hero. Any woman that has ever felt sorry for herself or her life should read this novel. Nargis has endured so much heartache and both emotional and physical pain, yet she selflessly cares for others while also trying to make her own dreams come true. She refused to worry about the opinions of others regarding her leaving her crappy ex-husband, and even though she had to leave her youngest behind in order to save the lives of her other two children, she knew he would be cared for by his grandparents. She actually made me think of my grandmother a great deal, who did not grow up in such a harsh and repressed place, faced scrutiny in the 1930’s by asking for a divorce from her own useless and abusive husband – a practice that was unheard of in the tiny North Carolina town in which she lived.

Harriet had a great deal of inner beauty, strength and love, even in the beginning when she is still rather indifferent to Nargis as a person. Unfortunately, as years had passed and she had been moved from strange place to strange place with her distant and unaffectionate husband, she began to lose sight of who she was as a person. As the novel progresses, Harriet learns that Nargis is the one and only person that she can count on and rely on, especially compared to the other ex-pat wives that she had befriended. Slowly but surely, Harriet learns to see Nargis as a friend rather than an employee and secretly tries to help Nargis anyway she can, whether monetarily, with time-off or just support when Nargis needed it.

Annika Milisic-Stanley has created a masterpiece with this debut novel. This novel is a page-turner because you want to know every single thing that’s coming next, but it’s a novel you should take time with and really read and process the words, events and emotions. This is a book to buy in print which I eventually will so that you can share it with all of your female friends, sisters, cousins, nieces, or daughters. When a friend or family member is feeling down about their lives, have them read this novel and draw strength from the incredible Nargis, and remind them to count their blessings because they have boots for walking in the snow or warm water to bathe and wash their hair. This book doesn’t imply that the Tajik women have it worse than anyone else, but their strength and ability to move on is inspirational and moving. “The Disobedient Wife” is by far one of the best pieces of literature I have ever read.

*I received a copy of this incredible novel in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Georgia Rose.
Author 10 books257 followers
June 10, 2016
I read The Disobedient Wife by Annika Milisic-Stanley as part of Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team and I am delighted I chose it. I shall say right from the outset that this is a book I never wanted to end. I adored wallowing in its beautifully descriptive passages so elegantly crafted by this author and I was completely captivated by the lives the characters of this novel led.

From the outset it is clear that Nargis is the disobedient wife of the title. Widowed from the man she loved she has deserted the brutal Poulod she then married and it is clear that in this country she is in the wrong for doing so, even if it was to protect herself and her children. Two of these, from her first marriage, Hussein and Bunavsha, live with her, her parents and brother in not much more than a hovel. Poulod has kept Faisullo, the son she had with him, which causes Nargis deep distress. But Nargis is a survivor. She works as a nanny for Harriet Simenon who is living the ex-pat life while her husband, Henri, works. She also sells paintings and being resourceful, and hardworking, soon opens a shop. I liked her very much and so desperately wanted a happy ending for her.

‘She was as Persephone, forced from summer on Earth to the chill of the Underworld.’ Says it all.

At the beginning of this story I wasn’t that keen on Harriet as she appeared selfish, spoilt and totally unaware of the lives of those closest to her. But at the end of each chapter there is a journal entry from her and through these we see her start to develop, to open her eyes and to not just accept what is expected of her. She does indeed manage to become a disobedient wife in her own right and I was delighted as she took charge of her life.

But there is a third contender for the title of disobedient wife, Savsang, a smaller character and one whose shocking naivety has devastating consequences.

As I read this book I was reminded time and again of the similar stories told of the lives of those in Afghanistan by Khaled Hosseini and I would recommend this for anyone who loved those, as I did. But if you haven’t tried something like this before I’d urge you to pick up this book anyway. I could go on about how wonderfully depicted the characters are or how vibrantly the settings are painted but those words just don’t do this wonderfully written tale justice and you need to experience this read for yourselves.
Profile Image for Writerful Books.
40 reviews22 followers
January 13, 2016
The Disobedient Wife weaves together the lives of two very different women. Harriet is a lonely, English expat living with her Belgian husband and two children in Tajikistan. In their employ is Nargis, a Tajikistani nanny who looks after their two children while Harriet swans around town getting her nails done, frequenting foreign restaurants and having cocktails with her other expat friends in an attempt to stave off her frustration and homesickness.

Read the full review on Writerful Books
Profile Image for Hazel Manuel.
Author 7 books34 followers
May 20, 2016
The Disobedient Wife is a beautiful and compelling story of two women from very different worlds, and how they come to understand and appreciate one another's challenges. Both of the main characters are multi-dimensional people who keep the plot moving throughout the book. The story is well told and interesting enough to have me reading 'just one more chapter' well into the nights. In addition to this, I enjoyed learning about a country and culture I previously knew very little about. I highly recommend this book.
1 review
October 2, 2016
Interesting and thought provoking, a beautiful read!

The story of an unusual and complex relationship between two women coming from entirely different cultural and social backgrounds. As their paths cross, they will enrich and inspire change in each other's life. It is also a universal story of women's condition, no matter the era, part of the world or material wealth.

Rich and vivid descriptions of Tajikistan made me discover this troubled country I knew nothing about. An engaging writing, transporting you right into the place and atmosphere of the story.
Profile Image for Fiona.
624 reviews1 follower
May 19, 2020
Heart wretching story.

I was really expecting much from this book. I needed to read a book that takes place in Tajikistan and this seemed not bad.. Not bad? Really, it was very good. This is the story of two women, one Tajik and and European, facing the dilemmas of married life.

Nargis is widowed from Ahmed, her true love. They had two children. After Ahmed's death, her parents encouraged her to marry Poulod. He was willing to marry her even though she was no longer a virgen so what were her choices. She did but regretted it. He would beat her and her eldest son because he looked like Ahmed. Poulod and Nargis had a son together but when she left him she had to leave her son with Poulod's family. It's the Tajik custom. She gets a job as a nanny for the European diplomat's wife, Mrs Harriet. She wants more though. She finally opens a small grocer shop in her neighborhood. She occasionally sees Poulod because she still wants to see her youngest son. Poulod gets a job as a drug smuggler for the mafia and wants Nargis to join him. She's afraid for her life now. She has to get away with her children.

Harriet's husband, Henri, is a diplomat.. All that he asks of his wife is that she bear children and host dinners for his diplomatic corps colleagues. He is often away for days at a time for business. Like Nargis, she wants more in life too. She wants a job but Henri laughs and says "what skills?". Harriet discovers that Henri is having an affair. She contemplates leaving him. He has asked for a transfer to Nairobi. Maybe Harriet will return to England with her kids for a few months before joining him in Africa. That would teach him a lesson, she thinks. Then a bomb goes off and he is injured. At the hospital she again discovers that he has had more than one affair. Her decision is now made.

Although these two women live in different cultures and at different economic levels, their lives are similar.. Can one be true to herself if she is married? Does she have to abide by local customs on the role of women? How does an expat woman live in a foreign country with foreign customs?

Excellent book and the roles of women. The descriptions of Tajikistan are detail and believable..

Profile Image for Madeline.
Author 2 books3 followers
July 10, 2018
I was grateful to read The Disobedient Wife and to expand my understanding of life in Tajikistan. I was especially grateful to have so many different perspectives by and about women. All the female characters in the book undergo a change of perspective, and one can certainly see that traditional culture, as rich as it is, is changing quickly. The author does a nice job with Point of View, and the expat wife is revealed to us both in her deepening relationship with her Tajik nanny, and in her journal reflections, always just a bit different than the scene just described. We admire Nargis, the main character, and root for her to forge on without her abusive husband. Women in the story have some tough roads to walk, and I liked the solution, that they help and support one another, to get through the worst. I loved the description of plants, foods, and seasons throughout the story. Thank you very much, Annika Milisic-Stanley, for writing this book!
Profile Image for Emma Lewis-Galic.
Author 1 book
January 19, 2021
I absolutely LOVED this book! I found it completely engrossing from the very first page and couldn't put it down. If you want a 'summer read' but are not into light, moronic chic lit fiction but prefer well crafted, intelligent, thoughtful fiction this is the book for you. The story was utterly believable and so touching, I honestly felt like I personally knew the characters which is after all the sign of a great novel. The sense of place was wonderful, I felt transported. Milisic-Stanley is an extremely talented writer and the book was one of the most evocative that I've ever read and one I will not forget. Very moving and thoroughly enjoyable. Impactful and dense, whilst being not at all 'heavy' to read. Love love loved it, will be looking out for more books by this author.
9 reviews
December 30, 2021
I really enjoyed this book. It kept me gripped right through, and I was plain disappointed when it was finished.

You get really involved with the characters, you love them in spite of their weaknesses. I especially enjoyed how it followed the two main characters interwoven stories and the progression through their unlikely friendship.

You also get a great impression of the location, Tajikistan, which is one not many people are familiar with. You can tell the author knows the place well, and has also done lots of research about its politics and recent history, and the traditions and lifestyle of the people living there.

And it really blows apart the idea of the glam ex-pat life-style. Some gritty home-truths in there.
Profile Image for Debra  Wills.
75 reviews
March 9, 2020
This book takes place in Tajikistan. The character of Nargis is the backbone of this book. She is a young woman who faces poverty, hardships in relationships and the struggles of being a Tajik woman. I couldn't put this book down and was satisfied with the way it ended.
Profile Image for Ian.
528 reviews71 followers
September 29, 2016
Overall, I liked this novel about two women - the English wife of a diplomat and her Tajik maid. Most of the stuff about the Englishwoman was often more than a bit unbelievably pants but the Tajik stuff was really, really interesting and for some reason felt much better written, almost as if two authors were at work. The writing consequently came alive and then fell flat and then came alive again. Whatever its faults I found it to be a bit of a page turner and I engaged wholly with the Tajik woman if not her employer. Great insight for me into the life and people of a little known or written about country that seemed to be well researched so well worth a read.
1 review1 follower
April 6, 2016
'The Disobedient Wife' is a colourful, informative and absorbing tale, woven in present-day Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Milisic-Stanley offers us a window onto the lives of two women whose circumstances appear to be worlds apart. Keeping an eye open for the next novel by this talented writer.
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