Johka Alharthi, Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth (published in Arabic as Sayyidat al qamar 2010, translation Allen and Unwin 2019)
This book is quite a ride. The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, it’s Jokha Alharti’s second novel. According to the Translator’s Introduction, it’s one of ‘ a wave of historical novels that constitutes a major subgenre of fiction in the Arab world’, and ‘has been praised by critics across the Arab world for its fineness of portraiture, its historical depth and subtlety, and its innovative literary structure’.
It tells the story of a couple of intertwined Omani families in the village of al-Awafi over four generations, but its ‘innovative literary structure’, which is at first bamboozling and never becomes straightforward, means that the story isn’t told in anything remotely like a straight chronology. With some exceptions, alternate chapters are narrated by Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman: he drifts in and out of sleep and entertains trance-like memories while travelling on a plane, he ruminates on his complex, pain-filled relationship with his late father, on the state of his marriage and on his children’s life paths. Each of the other chapters focus on a different character: Abdallah’s wife, his daughter, his sisters-in-law, his father-in-law, the slave woman who raised him. With each of these characters, the novel moves off into different directions and to different times. Time collapses and the overwhelming sense is that everything is happening in an imagined present.
Yet the period covered by the narration sees huge social and political change. A recurring image of flimsy buildings being replaced by cement ones becomes emblematic of the changes. Slavery was legal in Oman until 1970, but one of the main characters is irritated or worse when her husband and then her son insist that she and they are no longer slaves – that’s how she thinks of herself and she has made it work for her, including establishing a sexual partnership with her ‘owner’. The situation of women in general is in a state of flux: three sisters negotiate different outcomes in relation to the outgoing custom of arranged marriages; each of them faces down the patriarchy in her own way, though patriarchy stays intact.
The modernity of lab coats, plane trips and celebrity culture jostles with elaborate cursing rituals, offerings to placate djinns, and (no spoiler really) what turns out to be a covert honour killing. Classic Arabic literature has a strong presence – my impression is it wouldn’t be realistic if the characters didn’t recite poetry every now and then, and indeed they do. There’s more than one unsolved murder, although – after some teasing – the reader is left in little doubt about the perpetrators. There are some deeply satisfying twists for better and worse in the many complex marriages and relationships. Especially towards the end, tragedies that have been passed over or heard about at third hand are seen in close-up.
Marilyn Booth’s English is elegant and accessible, and leaves enough Arabic words in place that the reader is always aware that this is a place and a culture he (in my case) knows next to nothing about. There’s a map of the characters at the front, which I needed to consult often.
Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (you can read how the judges described it at that link), which is how it came to be on offer at our Book-swapping Club. I’m glad to have read it.