What is this about?: The Zanzibar Wife is not what I expected. The title itself would suggest a focus on one woman, but it’s really three very different women around which this book revolves.
What else is this about?: Culture, and clashes and finding where you can make peace with what you and others believe. It’s a character study I think, with three very different, very complicated women in Oman.
Blurb: Oman. The ancient land of frankincense, wind-swept deserts, craggy mountaintops and turquoise seas. Into this magical nation come three remarkable women, each facing a crossroad in her life.
Rachel, an American war photographer, who is struggling to shed the trauma of her career. Now she is headed to Oman to cover quite a different story – for a glossy travel magazine.
Ariana Khan, a bubbly English woman who has rashly volunteered as Rachel’s ‘fixer’, a job she’s never heard of in a country she knows nothing about.
And Miza, a young woman living far from her beloved homeland of Zanzibar. As the second wife of Tariq, she remains a secret from his terrifying ‘other’ wife, Maryam. Until the day that Tariq fails to come home…
As the three women journey together across this extraordinary land, they quickly learn that, in Oman, things aren’t always what they appear to be…
The Zanzibar Wife is a bewitching story of clashing cultures and conflicting beliefs, of secrets and revelations, of mystery and magic, by the author of the beloved international bestseller The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul.
The Zanzibar Wife is about a wife, Miza, but it’s about two other women as well: Rachel and Ariana and as I mentioned above, it’s a character study of these women at a turning point in their lives. I guess they’re trying to figure themselves out in this new stage of their lives.
We learn rightaway that Rachel is an accomplished photographer, who has worked in conflict zones and taken photos in places that tear at your heart, and sometimes, in Rachel’s case at least, it’s easy to forget the emotion that comes with heartbreaking scenes, because you have to control what you feel. Thing is, Rachel is perhaps numb more than anything, and while the book starts like that with a focus on her, there’s a time jump before her story starts proper with an assignment to Oman for a friend and a lifestyle magazine.
At that point, Rachel is existing, taking comfort from her routine every day, and not venturing into anything more than taking photos in the street. Part of her is broken, and it’s come exactly from the thing she loves the most – taking photos. She realises she has no close ties, no close relationships because in her work, you couldn’t.
So when her friend asks her to photograph the amazing craftsmen in Oman, she goes albeit reluctantly.
Ariana is a divorced, who grew up in the UK, before she moved to Dubai and found herself through some sweet-talking becoming Rachel’s fixer – the woman who takes her around to where she’ll get the photos she needs. Thing is, Ariana needs the money and her experience is non-existent. And all this becomes pretty apparent when she drags Rachel to the tourist traps, for the photos she decidedly doesn’t want.
While Ariana presents a picture of a beautiful woman interested in clothes, shopping and texting incessantly while she should be focused on Rachel, the author reveals to us a woman who holds fast to her Islamic faith, and values what her parents think of her even though she might be doing the opposite, and technically disagrees with them. She’ll think nothing of giving up her room for a stranger, Miza. Underneath the clothes, the make-up and the eyelashes is a kind-hearted woman, who is deeply religious.
Miza is if anything, the Zanzibar wife. While Ariana and Rachel might be the louder characters of the story, so to speak, Miza’s presence is always felt – something strong and steady, and compelling as Deborah Rodriguez lets readers in on her story.
She is deeply in love with her husband, Tariq, and pregnant, but she is also his second wife. He saved her and her sister from a life with an uncle who thought them a burden, and Miza with the realisation that she might have to spend her life enduring her uncle if only to keep him from her little sister, and a roof over their heads.
She is quietly determined, and will do anything for those she loves. But what she does not know, is what has happened to her little sister when she moved to be closer to Tariq to have their child. These two parallel narratives make up Miza’s story, but then there’s also, well magic.
The Zanzibar Wife is filled with humour, brought by unexpectedly Rachel enduring Ariana she tries to be a convincing fixer and keeps failing. Ariana drags her around Oman, taking her to all the wrong spots for the magazine piece she’s there to take photos for, but I loved it. I live vicariously through books like these, relying on the author’s words to bring these places to life for me.
But as Rachel grows ever more irritated, and Ariana more desperate, they meet Hani. He is a driver and a friend of Miza’s. The first time they meet is when the ladies all meet, and while each is wrapped up in their own worlds, it doesn’t take long for their walls fall bit by bit and for Rachel and Ariana to understand just how desperate Miza is.
They find out exactly what happened to Tariq, and Rachel and Miza’s quests for two very different things take them to one of the most haunted places in Oman, Bahla. This is where the jinn are, and where Ariana gets freaked out of her mind. She believes in her faith, the good and the bad, wholeheartedly, including the jinn. They are considered a species of beings, be they good or evil, living among humans with powers. At that point Ariana discovers Hani comes from a family who believes in… the magic of their faith.
Whatever you believe, you do you – as the ladies do in Bahla. Miza wants help to protect her baby from Tariq’s first wife’s jealousy, Rachel finds unexpected help and Ariana… well, let’s just say she freaks out, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t actually grow. Love does that to you.
The thing with this book is, if I tell you any more, it’s going to spoil it. I want readers to understand the magic of the world the author creates. These women may be guarded in the beginning, but as the book progresses – you know how friendships happen when you least expect it and they just hit you in the gut with how much they end up meaning to you? That’s these ladies.
And that’s also what I call some brilliant characterisation too.