Title: Celestial Bodies
Author: Jokha Alharthi
Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Sandstone Press
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
One thing about being on any shadow panel of any literary award is that you by default get to read great diverse literature. Being on the shadow panel of Man Booker International Prize for two years now has made my literary life so to say not only enriching but also illuminating. It has made me see perspectives, change opinions, remain steadfast about some opinions, and over all made me interact with people across the world about literature and life.
This time around, Celestial Bodies from the long and the short list is that one book that enriched my reading life and to a very large extent made me see lives that weren’t otherwise known to me. Anyway, back to Celestial Bodies. This is one of the top three books I am rooting for, for the win that is. It is a story of womanhood – of it means to the women in the book and to the society that has built structures of patriarchy to be followed. At the same time, it is about the changing socio-economic structures and how those impact the family.
There is Maya, the eldest daughter of the family who prefers not to challenge what the family expects of her and agrees to marry the son of a rich merchant. The second one, Asma seeks an education. The youngest daughter, Khawla insists on waiting for her cousin who has told her that he will be his partner. All he does is immigrate to Canada and all her hopes are dashed. The younger generation then moves to Muscat and there also their lives are not easy. At the same time, the book is also about the men, whom we get to know of as we go along – Maya’s husband, his father, and not to forget the slave system at play which bothered me greatly as I was reading the book.
There is a lot going on in the book – from the emancipation of women to what men feel to the social structure of Oman, and also not to forget the younger generation. Alharthi packs all of it together tightly and not once do you feel that the strands of any story are left untended to. From the village of al-Awafi (fictional by the way) to Muscat, each phase and turn of events is seen through different eyes – sometimes unbelievable and others completely heartbreaking. The writing is empathetic for sure, and yet doesn’t shy from the grim reality of the world of patriarchy, in a land ruled by men.
Marilyn Booth’s translation is on point. It isn’t easy to translate a book of multiple narrations and sometimes also leaning toward stream of consciousness (mildly). Celestial Bodies has the dreamlike quality to it, without being superficial or flimsy and that’s what you take as a reader – the inherent story, the characters, and what you end up feeling.