Sunday, August 18, 2019

Celestial Bodies

Celestial Bodies / Jokha Alharthi;
trans. from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Inverness, Scotland: Sandstone Press, 2018, c2010.
256 p.
I had to be sure to read this year's International Man Booker prize winner. It's a slim book, comprising chapters told from different perspectives and focusing on different characters. 

It's the first book by an Omani woman to be translated -- that's a lot of pressure on her to represent everything about Oman! This book takes one family as its centre, tracing the lives of three generations to reveal changes in the culture. 

I did learn quite a lot about Oman and its inhabitants, and their expectations of life, but in an indirect manner. Alharthi talks about the family quite naturally, not lecturing or informing a foreign audience, but telling a story to those who would already know the context. 

The cover and the beginning of the book both suggest that this is the story of three sisters, which it kind of is, but also kind of isn't. The narrative makes a lot of space for their father's story, and there are also many interspersed chapters from the eldest daughter's husband's perspective. 

The middle sister fades away after her marriage and all we know about her is that she is having many, many children. The youngest sister's story is interesting but we only get glimpses of it, not the full story or any emotional connection. I liked all the sisters, though, and wanted to know more about them. 

There was a lot that I didn't know about this culture. The family has a slave/servant family, originally stolen and sold from Africa. The son is beginning to be vocal about this history, but the mother just goes along and feels Omani. There are Berbers living near the town; the patriarch gets involved with one of the women, to dramatic effect. 

It's a short book that was fascinating, but ultimately I found it just faded out in the end. The last chapter is from the contemporary voice of the husband, and I didn't enjoy that as much -- also, it left much of the narrative only partially complete. So, I appreciated this book, and it has stayed in my memory, but I could have read it at twice the length and enjoyed a bit more expansion of the sister's lives. 


  1. This one sounds interesting, even with your reservations about it. It reminds me of similar books I've read by Muslim or Arabic women from which I've learned so much about that part of the world - a culture I want to learn so much more about.

    1. I'd say they were slight reservations; it was really a good read, and some parts in particular very evocative. And I did learn a lot!

  2. I do like the sound of this one. Too bad she didn't write more at the end.

    1. It is a great book! Just a little sparse for me; when it's a family saga I like more family in it :)


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