All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

on September 9, 2019

Celestial Bodies 
Jokha Alharthi (translated by Marilyn Booth)
Allen & Unwin
2019, 243p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Celestial Bodies is set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, where we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada.

These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, Celestial Bodies is a coiled spring of a novel, telling of Oman’s coming-of-age through the prism of one family’s losses and loves.

This was a really interesting read but it’s the sort of book that’s quite difficult to review. It’s written in a way that means it moves back and forth in time – there are chapters told in the first person by Abdallah, which seem to be significantly far into the future of the other chapters, all told in third person and revolving between a bunch of different people as the focus. The book begins with Abdallah’s marriage to Mayya and the subsequent birth of their first child and the ways in which Mayya and her mother observe the rituals in Oman that centre around childbirth.

At its core, the story is of three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla. All three of them marry for very different reasons. Mayya marries Abdallah, who cares for her very deeply, loves her but it’s a love that she doesn’t return. She experiences a heartbreak and then marries Abdallah and although they seem to make a good life together, it’s obvious to Abdallah his marriage is uneven and a lot of his chapters revolve around his feelings for his wife and also the cruelty he experienced as a child at the hands of his father.

Asma is the middle sister and when two brothers come seeking the hands of her and her sister Khawla, Asma takes some time to think before agreeing to the match because it’s what she should do. Khawla on the other hand, refuses the brother interested in her because she considers herself long promised to her cousin from childhood, a cousin who has moved to Canada to study. Khawla seems to fiercely believe he will come back for her, like he promised but most others seem skeptical, having heard the rumours about the freedom he is enjoying being in Canada. Khawla remains loyal though, refusing to even consider anyone else, keeping herself only for her cousins.

This book spans multiple generations and takes place during a time of great change for Oman, the outlawing of slavery and the reluctance of some such former slave owners to accept the new laws and that things were changing. Also things were confusing for slaves, who were once owned and are now free….but free to do what and go where? Slavery is all they have ever known in most cases. Some choose to stay where they were owned, unsure how else to make their way in this changing Oman. It’s pretty euphemistic but I assumed that some of the female slaves that were spoken of giving birth, were generally giving birth to children their owners had fathered, although this did not seem to be acknowledged. In some cases, slaves did seem to be openly recognised as mistresses of their owner, such was the case with Abdallah’s father. Slaves that the owners were pleased with were often rewarded with marriages to other slaves and it did seem as though the owners controlled every aspect of the slave’s lives.

This book was the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2019, awarded to a book translated into English. Normally I don’t have a lot of luck with prize winners but I found this book beautiful to read, from a standpoint of looking at individuals and their choices or lack of them, a family as a unit and even a country as a whole. I’ve never read anything set in Oman before, which was one of the reasons I requested this from the publisher, because I’m really interested in trying works of fiction from new-to-me places, especially from authors who are from or living in those areas. The translation felt flawless too, creating a very evocative piece where I felt I could picture myself there as Mayya experienced her confinement after giving birth and feel the sand beneath my feet as her father trekked the desert to the Bedouin community. I really enjoyed the complexity of the woven in stories that took the reader far beyond Mayya and her sisters and explored the class system in Oman, the British influence, the languages, the city versus the more rural village areas. It felt to me, a very thorough book despite a relatively slim page count.

Jokha Alharthi definitely goes on a list of authors to watch out for in the future because I definitely want to read more from her.

8/10

Book #137 of 2019

I’m counting Celestial Bodies towards my participation in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019, for the prompt #6 – Multi-gen family saga. Originally I had another book chosen for this prompt but given one of my personal goals was to read as widely as possible, I decided this one fit better. It’s book #19 for the challenge.

 


One response to “Review: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

  1. […] Multi-gen or family saga – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. My review. […]

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