‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi (Review – MBIP2019, Number 8)

After a rather confusing (and slightly disappointing) wander around the forests and islands of Japan, today’s leg of our Man Booker International Prize longlist journey has us visiting a new location, with a change of both pace and climate.  This time we’re off to Oman to spend time with a family and watch them develop over a number of years, as the society they live in also changes.  It’s a story of three sisters, but rest assured, there’s also a rather extended supporting cast – unlike our last stop, this is not a story for lone travellers 😉

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi
– Sandstone Press, translated by Marilyn Booth
What’s it all about?
In the village of al-Awafi, a not-too-distant drive from Muscat, lives a family with three adult daughters, each with a very different character.  The story initially develops in a rather Victorian direction, with the main thrust of the story being the marital fates of the sisters: Mayya, the seamstress; Asma, the bookworm; and Khawla, the quiet beauty.  As the family is respected and well-off, their parents, Azzan and Salima, don’t have to exert themselves to find potential husbands, and it’s not giving much away to say that all three will be married before the end of the book.

However, this isn’t an Anthony Trollope novel, and the finding of husbands is actually a very small part of Celestial Bodies.  Instead, the three sisters are merely the fixed points around which the story revolves, allowing the writer to head off and tell a far more ambitious tale, one spanning generations and moving from the desert hinterlands to the coast and the capital.  In doing so, Alharthi explores a wider story, that of the country itself, yet she also manages to keep on eye on the fate of her characters, too, showing how while time moves on, some things remain the same.

In a fascinating book, the most notable feature is perhaps the structure, with the novel consisting of a number of chapters divided into two main strands.  The first is a series of third-person accounts set mainly in the past, but slowly moving forwards, each section focusing on different characters.  We spend time with the three sisters, their parents, Zarifa (a slave woman intimately involved in their lives) and many other people from the village, and this enables us to construct an overview of the story from multiple perspectives.

The other is told by Abdallah, Mayya’s husband, as he sits in an aeroplane in the present day, his mind wandering as he heads overseas.  This first-person account is looking back into the past, recalling his joys and troubles, with a particular emphasis on his personal relationships.  In addition to examining his marriage, and the problems his (now fully grown) daughter London has suffered though, he recalls his childhood and the fear he felt (and still feels) whenever his father is mentioned.

Relationships are an integral part of Alharthi’s work, with Mayya and Abdallah’s marriage just one example.  Her willingness to take him for her husband is, perhaps surprisingly, not accompanied by a desire to try to love him, something he sadly comes to accept:

Didn’t you at least have some notion of what love is, Mayya?  Didn’t you feel something of what I went through as I paced around your family home like a pilgrim circles the Kaaba, once, twice, seven times?
How could the house ever be spacious enough to hold all of my passion?
Then how could it be, Maya, that your eyes, fixed on your sewing machine, never could see the vast and tortuous expanse of my love, and my imprisoned self?

p.152 (Sandstone Press, 2018)

As he sits high above the clouds and reflects on his life, he realises that he’s generally happy with his lot, and yet…

However, there are many other less-than-perfect relationships explored in Celestial Bodies.  Mayya’s sister Khawla, for example, is waiting for a lover who is overseas (and reluctant to come back), turning down perfectly good proposals in the hope that her man will one day return.  Abdallah’s mother died not long after he was born, but the story hints that there’s more to her death than mere misfortune.  Even Azzan the patriarch, a happy family man, has his own issues.  Dazzled by the approaches of Najiya, a Bedouin woman so beautiful she’s compared to the moon, he begins to neglect Salima, who bides her time, hoping he’ll come back of his own accord.

Just as important, though is the way the writer’s story reflects the development of Omani society.  Through flashbacks, the reader is taken back to times of poverty and hardship, with intriguing short glimpses into the country’s history (the British protectorate, uprisings, treaties and division).  There are also stories of slavery, with chapters showing how Zarifa and her husband came to be in the country:

He and his mother were sold when they reached the east coast of Oman.  The slave traders sold them to other slave traders, until finally Merchant Sulayman bought them.  Habib’s mother wept for years. (p.124)

This societal view extends all the way into the modern era, with behaviour once inconceivable now the norm.  In the age of the smartphone, education for women is no longer taboo, and the strong ties families prided themselves are considerably looser.

For all the modern developments, Celestial Bodies still delights in describing traditional culture, whether that’s Zarifa and her offerings to the jinnis or elaborate wedding preparations and celebrations.  One wonderful scene has a large group of women examining goods for Asma’s bridal trousseau, poring over perfumes and beautiful fabrics to be turned into clothes (again, it’s all very reminiscent of Trollope!).  There are also anecdotes of times past, such as the memorable story of an old woman remembering how she spent the first month of her marriage beating off her husband with weapon-grade bangles, not realising that her mother only meant for her to put up a token resistance on her wedding night…

Celestial Bodies is less a linear novel than a mosaic, and there isn’t really a plot as such, with all the main ideas present in the first few chapters.  What Alharthi does instead is to gradually fill in the gaps between these ideas, shading the blank spaces and putting the puzzle together piece by piece.  It can be a struggle to keep it all straight in your head, especially with a cast of Tolstoyan proportions (the family tree printed at the start of the book is of great help here), but the novel is never less than enjoyable and absorbing.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book, though, is how despite the story coming together, little gaps are left in the picture.  Like real life, Celestial Bodies is incomplete, leaving some of its secrets uncovered at the end of the story.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
While it’s not in the (very) small group of books I expect to be contending for the prize itself, Celestial Bodies may well squeeze into my final six.  Despite the lack of a real driving narrative, it’s a book that draws the reader in subtly and provides a fascinating picture of Omani life, both traditional and modern, without ever feeling like a Lonely Planet guide.  It’s also well written, with Booth’s work one of the book’s strong points, so I’d be very happy to see this longlisted – and I’m sure Sandstone Press (a publisher I’d never even heard of prior to the longlisting) would be over the moon, too 🙂

Will it make the shortlist?
The announcement is just hours away, and having read nearly all the books now, I have a bit more of an overview of the longlist as a whole.  It should come as little surprise to you all when I say that I haven’t been overly impressed by the standard this year, and I’m crossing my fingers that the judges will at least cobble together a decent shortlist.  With two Arabic-language titles longlisted, I suspect there’s someone on the panel behind that decision, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of those make the final cut.  Will it be this one?  I think it stands a very good chance, and I’ll be crossing my fingers for Alharthi, Booth and the Sandstone Press team 🙂

As we shake the dust from our suitcases, it’s time to pack up and move on once more.  It’s at this point that we must question our itinerary as our journey takes us to South America for a third time in a matter of weeks (next year we really should organise the schedule a little more sensibly…).  Still, in addition to racking up a few million more air miles, we’ll be visiting Santiago and going on a road trip over the Andes.  In the middle of a cloud of ash.

It’s enough to make you miss the sand already…

3 thoughts on “‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi (Review – MBIP2019, Number 8)

  1. I will be reading Celestial Bodies, Tony, thanks to your enthusiastic review. This sounds a bit like The Makioka Sisters in Oman. I am now curious about what else Sandstone Press is publishing.


    1. Nanosecond – That’s a nice way to put it, although they are very different books. As for Sandstone Press, yes, I must take a look 🙂


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