The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades

by Nega Mezlekia

Published by Penguin Canada

330 pages, 2006





The Many Levels of Nega Mezlekia's Novel

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


You don't need to know that the years encountered in The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades -- beginning in 1961 and concluding in the 1990s -- are among the most important in Ethiopia's modern history. It's not essential to understand that between the opening pages of Nega Mezlekia's second novel and its conclusion, Ethiopia went through radical changes, including a revolution that occurred in 1974 that left the beleaguered country no better off than it had been before. You don't need to understand the political ramifications of anything you come across in this book, nor do you need to grasp the manipulations that were occurring in the country that makes up most of the horn of Africa and that is surrounded by Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan.

You don't need to know because, like the very best of stories, The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades works softly and on its own merits without any of the wider backstory. Readers with a working knowledge of modern African history will come away from The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades with a different, perhaps fuller, understanding. But even without any of that, it's a starkly human tale that works on many levels and would be equally compelling against many backdrops.

At its core, it's the story of the title's Azeb Yitades and her family. The marriage mentioned occurs deep in the book. Too deep, really, for me to reveal very much about it without spoiling that which should not be spoiled. It can, however, safely be said that the unfortunate marriage is extremely unfortunate and sets off the sort of chain of events you don't come back from. But the marriage, as I said, comes late and by the time we get to it, we've had many pages -- and many fictional years -- of Mezlekia's delicate, almost hypnotic, prose and have come to love the characters that inhabit this story.

Mezlekia's style here is gentle, even charming. He seems to tell his tale starkly, and without embellishment -- almost like a village storyteller -- but this simplicity is deceptive. There is more going on here -- always -- than what at first meets the eye.

Like all babies, Azeb was a bundle of joy. Werknesh had taken the appropriate care when she placed a touch of butter in the baby's mouth before an hour had passed after the birth. The young mother had also followed the proper Christian practices when, exactly a week after the birth, she emerged at dawn with the baby in one arm and a knife in the other. She sat and gazed upon the sun, and showed the sun to the baby, before retreating indoors.

Azeb's family lives in Mechara, a village in eastern Ethiopia that is so isolated that life there has changed little for generations. It's a peaceful, lovely place surrounded by green hills and filled with people who are hardworking and largely content. Azeb is bright, quick and, in the way of young girls, gently rebellious.

But as she moves towards adulthood, Azeb isn't the only thing changing. The arrival of a family of white missionaries begins the shake-up. They apply Christianity quite differently and Azeb's father, the village priest, is dismayed. But the building of a road that connects the village to the larger world completes the spiritual transformation of the hamlet. By the time the book concludes, we've dealt not only with Azeb's most unfortunate marriage, but the green hills are green no longer and the village has become part of the larger -- more discordant -- world.

It's difficult to do justice to this book in a review. As used as we are to big stories where things explode and colors are loud and sometimes jarring, it's a challenge to find comparisons: if you liked this then you'll enjoy that. Other critics of Mezlekia's work have been less shy than I am. He's been compared to Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and others.

The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades is possibly not like anything you've ever encountered. Mezlekia tells his story with wit and insight, he engages deeply and leaves you feeling richer for the experience. It's the story of a country and a young woman coming painfully to adulthood: the story of modern Ethiopia and, somehow, the universal story of childhood lost that we'd recognize no matter where it was set. | July 2006


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.