Hello and welcome back! I hope everyone is having a nice weekend. Today, I’m reviewing The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih. Tayeb Salih is an author I was introduced to through my degree, and I enjoyed studying his novel Season of Migration to the North so much that I had to buy this book when I stumbled upon it in a bookstore (one day back when bookstores were open…).
The Wedding of Zein is more of a novella than a novel, clocking in at around 90 pages. In my edition, there are also two short stories: “The doum tree of Wad Hamid” and “A handful of dates”. Both the short stories were enjoyable, quick reads. I particularly enjoyed “The doum tree of Wad Hamid”, which tells the story of the survival of a doum tree that has a particular significance to the villagers. The way it’s written is really creative: the narrator addresses another person, a visitor to the village. Throughout the story, the narrator tells the visitor that they will leave the village tomorrow, and explains how the flies that bite terribly drive away anyone unused to their aggression. Only towards the end does the visitor speak up, and ask questions of the narrator. Whether the visitor remains in the village, or whether they flee, is left ambiguous, which I really like.
The main text in the book, The Wedding of Zein, tells not only of Zein’s wedding, but of Zein as a character within the village. Zein is a really interesting character to read about: he has only two teeth, his behaviour is considered freakish, and he regularly has short-lived, yet intense obsessions with beautiful women. And finally, he is to be married. The story opens by showing the villagers’ reactions to the news of the impending nuptials. I found this section really funny to read, because their reactions are very dramatic, and I also enjoyed seeing how the various givers of the news used it to their advantage, whether it be to get out of a geography class, or to distract their debtors from demanding repayment.
One thing I really liked about Salih’s work when I first read it was how well he is able to give the sense of community and village life in a short space of time. The Wedding of Zein, and the short stories contained within this text, are all great examples of this. The dynamic between the villagers is built up incredibly well, and all the characters are engaging and interesting. In just a few pages, Salih paints a detailed picture of village life, and the ways the characters fit into it. For such a short novella, there are quite a few characters, so I was even more impressed that Salih was able to make these characters feel developed and 3-dimensional.
The style of Salih’s writing is also something I really enjoy. It has a sort of conspiratorial feeling. The villagers are all gossiping about Zein, and it feels as though the reader is almost eavesdropping on these conversations at points. This definitely contributes to the overall atmosphere of the book, and really adds to the community feeling. Zein, however, seems to sit very much on the outside of the community. He is not rejected, but he has friendships with the other village outcasts, and the fact that he is always the subject of gossip rather than the perpetrator of gossip places him on the edge. Zein’s marriage, therefore, seems unbelievable even to the reader. We believe in the miracle.
How did Zein’s wedding come about? This is a question on every charcters’ lips, and one that gets left unanswered. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, there are several different versions of the story, different reasons that the girl and her family might have consented to the union. I like to think that it was Ni’ma, the bride of the story, who approached Zein, and this is presented as one of the most likely options. Ni’ma, while she has almost no time on the page, is discussed a lot by the other characters, and through that I really got a sense for her as a character, which was really clever. She has turned down several men who offered their hands in marriage, and seems to be of the opinion that she will know who the right man is. Apparently, the right man is Zein, and the book does in fact end with their marriage ceremony.
If you’re someone who’s looking to expand their reading and pick up more books from diverse authors, Tayeb Salih is definitely an author to add to your list. His depictions of Sudanese life are really interesting and his characters feel very well-developed and engaging. While I think I did prefer Season of Migration to the North to The Wedding of Zein, I would absolutely recommend either text. Season just pips The Wedding of Zein to the post by the fact I prefer novels to novellas, and I really liked the way that Season was able to explore the contrast between Sudan and England.