Alharthi’s ambitious, intense novel—her first to be translated into English and winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize—examines the radical changes in Oman over the past century from the perspectives of the members of several interconnected families. With exhilarating results, Alharthi throws the reader into the midst of a tangled family drama in which unrequited love, murder, suicide, and adultery seem the rule rather than the exception. She moves between the stream-of-consciousness musings and memories of businessman Abdallah as he flies to Frankfurt and vignettes from the lives of those in his family, the slaves who raised him under the rule of his abusive father, and the members of the large family he married into. These include, among many others, a wife who apparently loves her sewing machine more than him, her two conflicted sisters, a father-in-law conducting a torrid love affair with a Bedouin woman, and an unhappy physician daughter. The scenes establish the remarkable contrasts among the generations, whose members are united primarily by a fierce search for romantic love. The older generation has grown up with strict rules and traditions, the younger generation eats at McDonald’s and wears Armani jeans, and the members of the middle generation, particularly the women, are caught between expectations and aspirations. The novel rewards readers willing to assemble the pieces of Alharthi’s puzzle into a whole, and is all the more satisfying for the complexity of its tale. (Oct.)
Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize
A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year in Fiction
"In her novel Celestial Bodies, the Omani author Jokha Alharthi inhabits this liminal space between memory and forgetting: the dark tension between the stories we tell and the stories we know . . . Booth’s translation honors the elliptical rhythms of Arabic and the language’s rich literary heritage. She imbues the book’s numerous poetic extracts with lyricism and devotedly preserves the rhymes and cadences of its proverbs. ('The feet walk fast for the loving heart’s sake, but when you feel no longing, your feet drag and ache.') Yet there is no doubt that this is a contemporary novel, insistent and alive . . . Celestial Bodies is itself a treasure house: an intricately calibrated chaos of familial orbits and conjunctions, of the gravitational pull of secrets." ―Beejay Silcox, The New York Times Book Review
"Bright and illuminating." ―Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
"The form’s remarkable adaptability is on brilliant display in Celestial Bodies (Catapult), a searching work of fiction by Jokha Alharthi, an Omani writer and academic . . . Within all the chapters, the stories float like this, lightly tethered to what the French call récit―the moment in which the story is being told, the narrative present. The result is a beautifully wavering, always mobile set of temporalities, the way starlight seems to flicker when we gaze at distant and nearer celestial bodies . . . Indeed, the great pleasure of reading Celestial Bodies is witnessing a novel argue, through the achieved perfection of its form, for a kind of inquiry that only the novel can really conduct." ―James Wood, The New Yorker
"Arab women, therefore, face twin obstacles: the West’s own gender biases, and the reductive narrative of the Arab woman. This is why it was such a victory when the International Booker Prize jury chose an Arab novel―one written by a woman―to receive the award for the first time in the prize’s history. The Omani novelist Jokha al-Harthi’s breathtaking, layered, multigenerational novel Celestial Bodies, which was beautifully translated into English, follows the lives of three sisters from a small village at a time of rapid social and economic change in Oman. The tale is replete with history, poetry, and philosophy, but also slavery, broken marriages, passion, and not-so-secret lovers." ―Kim Gattas, The Atlantic
"Rich, dense . . . The variety of perspectives is effective in offering a window into a country that few Western readers will know intimately . . . Celestial Bodies is strongest in its exploration of how the changes in Oman affect women: within one generation, they are exposed to ideas from abroad and start moving away from cloistered, rural life. But Alharthi . . . pushes past stereotypical narratives of Muslim women defying patriarchy, instead illustrating the difficulties of balancing tradition and newfound freedoms. It’s a tale that perhaps could have been written only in a strange new place itself." ―Naina Bajekal, Time
"A rich, dense web of a novel . . . Alharthi constructs a tapestry of interlocking lives, some seen over the course of decades, others at just a single pungent moment. Rarely have I encountered a work of fiction in which form and idea were so inseparably, and appropriately, fused . . . Marilyn Booth, the translator, has done a wonderful job of conveying a lyricism I can only assume is present in Alharthi’s original." —Ruth Franklin, The New York Review of Books
Omani author Alharthi's novel, the first by a woman from that country to be translated into English, won the 2019 International Man Booker Prize with its sweeping story of generational and societal change.
The book opens with a betrothal in a well-to-do Omani family. Mayya, a serious girl who excels at sewing, obediently marries the son of Merchant Sulayman although she's secretly in love with a young student just returned from England. Later she surprises everyone by naming her firstborn daughter London. The story alternates between third-person chapters and ones narrated by Mayya's husband, Abdallah, a businessman whose childhood was marred by his father's cruelty and mother's mysterious death. Through the complex, interwoven histories of the two principal families and their households and their town of al-Awafi, we witness Oman's shift from a slave-owning, rural, deeply patriarchal society to one in which a girl with the unlikely name of London can become a doctor, marry for love, and obtain a divorce. The great strength of the novel lies in the ways this change is shown not as a steady progression from old to new but as a far more complicated series of small-scale transitions. Abdallah was largely raised by his father's slave Zarifa, whose mother gave birth to her on the day slavery was supposedly abolished at the 1926 Slavery Convention in Geneva. Zarifa is sold as a teenager by Shaykh Said to Merchant Sulayman and later married off to a slave kidnapped from Africa who screams "from the depths of his sleep, We are free people, free!" Both her husband and son leave Oman, and although Zarifa eventually follows, her heart remains in al-Awafi. The narrative jumps among a large and clamorous cast of characters as well as back and forth in time, a technique that reinforces the sense of past and present overlapping. In an image that captures the tension between old and new, a family uses its satellite dish as a trough for livestock. Salima, Mayya's mother, herself a kidnapped teenage bride, thinks sadly as she prepares the next of her daughters for her traditional arranged marriage, "We raise them so that strangers can take them away." But the daughter in question, Mayya's sister Asma, welcomes wedlock, because "marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home."
A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into Omani history and society.
In the Omani village of al-Awafi, Mayya bids adieu to the young man she truly loves and dutifully marries Abdallah, the sensitive son of the Merchant Sulayman. Abdallah was treated cruelly by his father, who left his upbringing to the slave Zarifa after the mysterious death of Abdallah's mother. Mayya's father indulges in a heated affair with a Bedouin woman, her sisters follow their own crooked paths to unhappiness, and the wily Zarifa resists leaving al-Awafi, as her husband and son have. Though their lives unfold in a narrative that can be dizzying to follow, the point isn't plot but the way the characters' voices keep circling back, adding to their stories and building a layered sense of Omani culture in swift transition. What's most striking is how that transition plays out here, with tradition and momentum, oud perfume and flights to Europe, a mother's time-tested marriage rituals and a daughter's studies to become a doctor, integrated into the flow. VERDICT Readers will come to this novel as the first written in Arabic to win the Man Booker International Prize and the first by a female Omani author to be translated into English and will leave with a sense of original storytelling, rich characterization, and transparently bright language, expertly translated. Highly recommended.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal