Jokha Alharthi; trans. by Marilyn Booth
The winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies paints a vivid portrait of Omani society as it grapples with the cultural and social changes precipitated by its transition into a modern society. The tension between late twentieth-century values and behaviors with those of the present is played out in the lives, marriages, and relationships of three generations of an affluent Omani family. Threaded throughout the novel are details about daily life and the interplay of folklore, traditional healing methods, and religion.
The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes told by a third person omniscient narrator focusing each time on one of a dozen or so characters. These vignettes alternate with the first-person narrative of Abdullah, a young man damaged by his father’s abuse and his mother’s death under mysterious circumstances. The multiplicity of characters and perspectives would have been confusing had Alharthi not provided a family tree to show the relationships. This family tree is essential, especially in the early pages of the novel, until one becomes familiar with each character’s placement.
The primary focus is on three sisters. Mayya, the eldest, suppresses her desire for the man she loves by acquiescing to parental demands to marry Abdullah, a man she does not love. Asma, the second in line, is the reader in the family. She agrees to marry the man chosen for her because she perceives the marriage to be a means to an end—the end being the ability to pursue her education. Khawla, the youngest, is in love with her cousin, Nasir. She resists all offers of marriage, stubbornly insisting to wait for his return from Canada.
Alharthi’s scope is wide. In the character of Zarifa, we learn of her mother’s captivity into slavery, the treatment of slaves, and the aftermath of their eventual emancipation in the 1960s. In addition to the generational conflicts, we read about political upheavals and rebellions as Omanis struggle for independence. We watch the gradual erosion of a rigid patriarchal structure where male infidelities, spousal abuse, and child abuse are rampant, and where women are treated as possessions, and where young girls are kidnapped and forced into marriage. In the space of a few short generations, the society transitions. The slaves have been freed; political factions have reached an uneasy truce; women now have careers, make their own voting decisions in elections, choose their own spouses, and divorce them for their infidelities.
The narrative progresses through non-linear shifts in time. We dip in and out of the long ago past, the more recent past, and the present. We watch Zarifa as she leaves food for the djinn to ward off harm for Abdullah at his birth. Within a few pages, we listen in on a conversation between Abdullah and his now adult daughter. As we piece together the shifts in time and the different perspectives, the back story of each character falls into place and a clear picture emerges.
Highly recommended for its immersive nature and breadth of scope in depicting Oman’s gendered lives and different socio-economic classes as it transitions into a modern society.