Review: The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories

The Wedding of ZeinTayeb Salih, The Wedding of Zein and Other Sudanese Stories (trans. Denys Johnson-Davies)

This very short book contains two short stories, “The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates,” as well as the novella “The Wedding of Zein.” All three works portray everyday life in a Sudanese village, but from varying perspectives. “The Doum Tree…” is about a sacred tree that is threatened when outsiders want to cut it down to make room for a new agricultural system. “A Handful of Dates” portrays a young boy’s disillusionment as he realizes that his grandfather isn’t as heroic as the boy once thought. And in “The Wedding of Zein,” the village laughingstock is about to be married to a beautiful and much-desired woman; the varied reactions of the townspeople to the news reveal subtle tensions within the village.

Before giving my thoughts on this book, I must admit that I know next to nothing about Sudan. I wasn’t even aware that its population spoke Arabic until I saw “translated from the Arabic” somewhere on my copy of the book! So I was very interested in reading these stories and broadening my horizons a little bit. Interestingly, my first impression after reading this book was that it could have been set in any number of places: the  country’s major conflicts of the last several years, including the secession of South Sudan, are not mentioned at all. Yet I did get a sense of the country’s Islamic culture and traditions, as well as its incorporation of progressive ideas in the realms of medicine and education. I found my glimpse into this foreign (to me) culture extremely fascinating. But I really liked the book’s focus on universal themes like love, family relationships, and the intricacies of village life. All in all, I found this book very easy to read and would definitely consider reading more by Tayeb Salih.

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu

Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

When I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell last year, it pretty much knocked my socks off, so I was excited to find  Clarke’s collection of short stories (all of which were, I think, previously published elsewhere).  Here are my thoughts on the individual stories:

“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” — Jonathan Strange visits his brother-in-law in Gloucestershire and is surprised to discover three young ladies with magical talents; however, they don’t always use these talents for benevolent purposes. A suitably creepy and atmospheric story, but I didn’t quite follow the plot.

“On Lickerish Hill” — In the 15th or 16th century, a young peasant girl marries the local squire and is forced to spin a large quantity of wool in an impossibly short period of time. My least favorite story in the bunch; the period language got on my nerves, and in general the story didn’t feel like it had very much substance to it.

“Mrs. Mabb” — In Regency England, a girl’s lover jilts her for the mysterious Mrs. Mabb, and the girl decides to fight back. I liked this story, especially the descriptions of the girl’s experiences in fairyland, which are darker and more painful than the word “fairyland” suggests.

“The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse” — The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory. 🙂 This is one of the shortest, most amusing stories in the bunch, and the setting (the village of Wall) is borrowed from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Definitely one of my favorites in the bunch.

“Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower” — Simonelli keeps a journal about his new job as the vicar of a country village and his encounters with a fairy lord who is looking for a new human bride. I liked this story because it was longer and more fleshed out than most of the others; it also conveys a subtly disturbing atmosphere.

“Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” — A Jew and a fairy visit the decaying town of Thoresby and make a plan to help its inhabitants. I wasn’t terribly interested in this story as such, but it does shed some light on Clarke’s fairies and their family relationships.

“Antickes and Frets” — Mary, Queen of Scots, plots to destroy Elizabeth by using magic. I enjoyed the incorporation of actual historical figures into this story.

“John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” — John Uskglass, the Raven King, inadvertently injures a lowly charcoal burner, who turns to various Christian saints for retribution. This was my favorite story in the bunch; the saints were hilarious, and I just really liked the whole idea of this story.

Sorry that took so long! I never know how to review short story collections. Should I talk about each story individually or just give my impressions on the collection as a whole? As you can see, I’ve chosen the former approach because I think it’s more helpful to people who are deciding whether the collection is worth their time or not. Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who hasn’t read Jonathan Strange, but for those who have read it, these stories shed an interesting light on Clarke’s world and her vision of the realm of fairy.