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Celestial Bodies Paperback – 5 March 2019
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Brings a distinctive and important new voice to world literature.― The Irish Times
A richly imagined, engaging and poetic insight into a society in transition and into lives previously obscured.― The Man Booker International Prize judges
Fascinating.― The Guardian
Alharthi has a strong narrative gift, transporting the reader into all the intimacies of a close-knit family group.― The Bay Magazine
It skilfully builds suspense by creating “Aha!” moments as characters come to better understand their pasts.-- Marcia Lynx Qualey ― The National
Finished it in a couple of sittings, addictive, compelling, informative and completely fascinating to read! Definitely recommend it, fingers crossed it appears on the short list too.-- Fiona Sharp ― Independent Book Reviews
A beautifully written and very moving story.-- Nicola Sturgeon ― Twitter
‘Compelling...’― Women In Translation
Blends the rhythms of daily life with magic and legend.-- Muhammad Barrada
Delivers the reader immediately into the world of the marginal, forgotten, most subaltern sectors of society.-- Ibrahim al-Hajari
This novel is interesting as a lens through which to view an important time in the transition of Omani society.― The Wee Review
About the Author
Jokha Alharthi is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, a children’s book, and three novels in Arabic. Fluent in English, she completed a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry in Edinburgh, and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. She has been shortlisted for the Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers and her short stories have been published in English, German, Italian, Korean, and Serbian.
- Publisher : Sandstone Press (5 March 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 256 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1912240165
- ISBN-13 : 978-1912240166
- Dimensions : 13.34 x 2.54 x 19.69 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 176,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Its failings: the stories of the many people in it career disconcertingly all over the place chronologically in a blizzard of mainly very short chapters (a few of which seem to me to have no point at all). As a result, there are many disjointed allusions which will be understood (if at all!) only later. Family relationships take some time to become clear, and some, like two uncles and their wives, are never named. The many Arab names are difficult to remember, especially when one is Zayd and another is Zayid. The book has no shape and no proper ending. Neither the English title nor the original Arab one, literally “Ladies of the Moon”, seem to me to have any connection with the story.
Its merits: we learn much about Oman: of its civil war in the 1950s, and its relationship with Britain. More importantly, principally through the lives of three sisters, part of a sprawling family, we see changes that have come about in Omani society over three generations as the country emerged into the modern world in the 1960s after its oil wealth was exploited. In their mother’s time, for example, women were expected to give birth at home in a standing position and without crying out in pain. We learn about the rituals accompanying births, weddings and deaths. During their adolescence, girls were segregated in a room of their own, on the other end of the courtyard, to keep them away from visiting male relatives and from women talking together about their experiences. There are odd traditions, like a mother not being present at her daughter’s wedding. Poetry plays an important part: long poems are learnt by heart and recited to each other.
The three sisters were born, I deduce, in the 1970s. (There are next to no dates in the book).
The eldest of them, Mayya, accepted an arranged marriage to Abdallah, although she was in love with another man to whom she had never spoken. She herself was delivered of a daughter in a missionary hospital, but she returned with her baby, whom she named “London”, to her mother’s home for the next forty days during which all kinds of rituals were performed to ward off evil.
The second sister, Asma, also accepted an arranged marriage. She would have fourteen children, and he relationship between herself and her husband, in which they are both dependent on and independent of each other, is subtly described.
The third sister, Khawla, had since their childhood been committed to her cousin, Nazir, who was now at a university in Canada. He did come back to marry her, but it was hardly the kind of marriage she had anticipated.
The girls’ paternal grandfather had bought a slave, Zarifa, and would not recognize the 1926 abolition of slavery in Oman. Zarifa, though now free, remained as a servant in the family, and first mothered the girls’ father, Abdallah, after Abdallah’s mother had died (how she died is an unresolved mystery), and she then played an important part in the lives of Abdalla’s descendants. She believes in djinns who need to be placated.
Much of the narrative is Abdallah’s. While he is on a business flight to Frankfurt (at some time after the girls had grown up and Abdallah had become a grandfather), he reminisces in a disjointed manner about the various periods in his and his family’s life. He has been haunted for many years after the death of his violent and bad-tempered father by a nightmarish punishment the latter had once inflicted on his then young son.
I have described only a small part of the content of this strange novel. It is only because it won the 2019 Man-Booker Prize that I persevered in reading it to the end; but I am truly astonished that it should have won the prize. It is quite the worst-organized book I have ever read.
This is the first time I read anything based in Oman, and that for me was an experience in itself. The narrative doesn’t follow a particular structure. It is presented from the viewpoint of different characters. It also goes back and forth in time. This structure provides a very rustic element to the narrative, as if the whole story is being presented in the form of a folklore with its myths and flavors intact. There are elements of a simple rural life but there are also flashes of scandal. They have been addressed with panache, without trying to sensationalize it.
The women of the story are very interesting. There is Mayya, who chose not to openly rebel against her family, but named her daughter London and never really came to lover her husband. Asma also married according to her father’s wishes, but chose to defy the norm by studying and embracing poetry. Khwala went against everyone and waited for her fiancé to come back from Canada, because he had promised so. Then there is Zarifa, who commands a household, despite being a slave and Qamar, a Bedouin woman who openly engages in illicit relationships. These women live in a society that thrives on toxic patriarchy and they choose to defy it in their own subtle ways.
It has to be admitted that a number of people will not like this story, due to the chronological issues that I have already mentioned, and the fact that the story incorporates both first and third person narrative styles as it progresses, and changes between the viewpoints of different characters.
This story thus takes us into the past and present of Oman, which not only gives us an insight into this country, but others in the region, and also issues that are raised here are those that many other countries and citizens can relate to, such as slavery in the past, which in Oman was not abolished until 1970. With more modern Western influences starting to arrive and develop, so we see older social structures and traditions start to alter, indeed something which has affected us all, and will long continue to do so.
With changes coming to the country so we see how this affects people, and how generations alter in their outlooks over the years. Taking in cruelty, love, loss and rigid class structures this book should appeal to many, however as I am sure most are aware, English speaking countries are the worse when it comes to reading and enjoying literature in translation, although no one really knows why. So ultimately, although this is beautifully written, which does come through in the translation, this does perhaps mean a bit of work by the reader, to try and remember what period you are reading of as it alters, and how certain characters are related to others. In all then a rewarding read, if you have some patience, and a good look into literature and life in the Gulf region.