Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi: A review


This book was the winner of the Man Booker International Prize last year. The writer is Omani and is the first female Omani writer to be translated into English and the first from the Arabian Gulf to win this prize. She is also - as best I can recall - the first Omani writer I have read.

I should also mention that Marilyn Booth translated the book from Arabic. Had I not known that it was a translation, I could not have discerned it so smoothly did the narrative flow.

And that is not to say that I did not have some problems with the narrative. There is a huge number of characters in this story and most of their stories are told by an omniscient third party narrator, but two of the characters speak in first-person narratives. I found the switch back and forth a bit confusing, and it made the story harder to follow and invest in. Plus some characters are mentioned tangentially and never heard of again. Nevertheless, overall this story provides extraordinary insight into a society that seems incredibly foreign and that is a value in itself.

Alharthi structures her tale around the lives of three sisters from the village of al-Awafi in Oman. She shows how the decisions of each of the sisters to accept or not accept the marriages that are arranged for them by their parents reverberate throughout their lives and the lives of others in the village.

Mayya, the oldest of the three, spends her days at her beloved sewing machine creating things from fabric. A young man named Ali bin Khallaf catches her eye and she becomes infatuated. He is her idealized love and she dreams of a life with him. But her parents arrange a marriage to a man called Abdallah, who, in fact, loves her. She bows to tradition and marries him.

The second sister, Asma, a lover of books and reading, also feels a sense of duty to accept the man selected for her by her parents. She is keen to have children and is not too concerned about who will father them as long as he is respectable and accepted by her society.

The third sister is the beautiful Khwala who is betrothed to a cousin who has emigrated to Canada. Years have passed and there is no word from him about when he will return. In fact, there is no word from him, period. Her parents decide to arrange another marriage for her, but Khwala is insistent. Her betrothed had promised to return and she is confident that he will. She is prepared to wait for as long as it takes and when his money finally runs out, he does return. Their marriage turns out to be a disaster.

Among the mindboggling plethora of characters that appear here in addition to the daughters, their parents, husbands, and children, the one that stands out for me is Zarifa, a woman who began life as a slave. Through her story, we see the transition of Omani society from a medieval slave-owning nation to a (somewhat) more modern 21st-century culture. Even though she makes the transition to "freedom", she continues as a servant in the household of her former owner and as his mistress. She was also the caretaker of his young son as he was growing up. She is a multi-layered, complicated character whose relationship to some of the other characters helps to give the story its structure.

The narration flows in a non-linear fashion, back and forth through time and results in a picture of a society in transition as experienced through the lives of three generations of this particular family. Although it was not an altogether easy read, I found it fascinating and informative.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

4 comments:

  1. I didn't use to be a fan of non-linear timelines but I've found if done right they can be something special!

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    1. Admittedly, they make the reader work a little harder to get at and follow the story, but when that story is interesting, they can be ultimately rewarding.

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  2. Good to have your review of this one. Perhaps if my parents had arranged a marriage for me I would not have had the disaster I did with my first one. But it was a good learning experience, at least for me now looking back at it.

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    1. Time does afford us some perspective, doesn't it?

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