Contemporary Literature · Translations

Celestial Bodies

In my goal of working to read more diversely, I’m attempting to also diversify my diversity… That sounds confusing, but basically, I’m just trying to cast my reading net ever wider. So when I heard about this 2019 winner of the International Man Booker, the first novel translated from Arabic to win this prize, in addition to being the first novel by an Omani woman translated to English, I added it to my TBR immediately. I don’t think I have ever read anything written by someone from Oman, nor even set there, so I was excited for this. Plus, conveniently for me this year, it also fits prompt #13 of The Reading Women Challenge 2020, a book by an Arab woman.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha al-Harthi

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This novel more or less centers around three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khowla who are living in contemporary Oman. Throughout the course of the novel, we see each of the sisters marry, and the way their lives unfold around that moment, both back into the past and far into the future.

This was such a fascinating read. The writing itself was beautiful, with a sort of poetry to the prose, so I would like to recognize both al-Harthi for her original words and Booth for maintaining such loveliness in her translation. And while the writing was wonderful, the heart of this novel was way these characters lives provided such profound cultural and familial insight. Mayya, Asma and Khowla enter their individual marriages with as much individual difference as any sisters would, and through the eyes of their singular experiences, the reader is then able to experience day-to-day nuance of family and culture that opens our eyes to a world that is both foreign and recognizable. The stylistic set-up of the novel contributes to this educational reading experience as well. The chapters are incredibly short, and each are written from a different perspective, most in the voice of an omniscient narrator (with the exception of chapters throughout that are told in Mayya’s husband’s voice), who presents to the reader the many stories that have gotten these people to their lives today. These perspectives jump around in voice and time period, back far into the past to give the reader a picture of how these sisters, their husbands, their families, came to be, and forwards into the future, to the lives and paths their children follow. This myriad variety of voices and timeline allows for a complex tapestry of relationships and interactions to be developed, in a surprisingly weighty, reflective and truly human way, considering how little of each individual point of view we actually get (because this book would have been a thousand page brick if each of these POVs were given any more page time).

But even more than the depiction of the characters that we get from this range of voices if the cultural awareness the style provides. al-Harthi follows Oman itself through its turbulent recent history, it’s evolution from a strictly traditional and slave-owning society to the complexities of the current day and the cultural fallout from the many changes, both internally and from external influences, that the country and its people have experienced. From perspectives of both mistreated and favored (as a mistress) slaves, of the old money rich and the new-trade-rich families, of conventional and more “liberated” versions of womanhood (and the consequences of that), of modern science/medicine and traditional beliefs/practices, of developing new roles and ways of living in the world as modernization (in all its positive and negative glory) steamrolls the world, and so many more, I feel like I really learned so much about Oman. Yes, it is a subjective interpretation, but past the bare facts of currents events (which I did some further research into, of course, while reading), this is the kind of book that makes a country, the people of that country, more fully understand. And that is was great literature does. Truly this was a cultural exploration, representation, elucidation, such as I have rarely read before.

Potentially the one criticism I have I that there were just so many characters, and so many points of view, and so much jumping through time, that I sort of got a little lost in the way each person was related to each other person and the specifics of how each thread intertwined over the years. To be fair and open on this front, I did listen to the audiobook and did not have a print copy on hand to reference, so I couldn’t easily go back for clarifications, which likely didn’t help. But still, it was a kink in my reading experience that I wanted to mention. *I have since found a physical copy and there is a family tree at the beginning, which would have helped SO much.* (To note here: the sheer number of characters and interactions is why I am choosing to review this novel in a general sense, not really mentioning or calling out an stories/characters specifically, because otherwise I’d end up down a rabbit hole that would make this review as long as the book itself…just trust me when I say their stories are all worth it and important in creating the overall picture of a people that al-Harthi is painting and, if you want those specifics, its definitely worth just reading the novel yourself). However, I also found that once I stopped worrying about forgetting certain connections and just let myself sink into each short chapter, absorbing the information/story at face value, I found that not remembering each specific relationship in detail really didn’t interfere too much with my overall experience of the book.

As I said, the real gem of this novel was the cultural insight, which I was completely immersed and educated in, regardless of particulars. Every society is complex, and the many angles from which al-Harthi examines Oman’s contemporary reality provides a nicely comprehensive vision of this particular one.

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