Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi
(translated by Marilyn Booth)
Originally published 2010
Historical Fiction, Literary
[CWs: domestic violence, slavery, child abuse]
I am lucky enough to have visited Oman several times through work - it is a beautiful country and I was really looking forward to reading a book from there to gain greater insight into the culture. This book was the first Arabic title to win the International Man Booker prize in 2019, and the first work from a female Omani author to be translated into English. I had read mixed reviews about the style of this novel, however I needn't have worried - it really worked for me.
Celestial Bodies, or 'Ladies of the Moon' in the original Arabic, tells the story of 3 sisters and their lives, loves and losses in the small village of al-Awafi in Oman. The novel spans several generations, providing a backdrop of an Oman that transforms through the years, with the end of slavery and an increase in trade, technology and globalisation.
Marriage and relationships sits as the centre of the narrative, with each sister marrying for a different reason: one who is attempting to stem the wounds of heartbreak, another who marries for duty but also a desire to have children, and another who will only marry her true love. The relationships of those around them are also explored: the husbands, the parents, their eventual children. There is a sense of melancholy throughout much of the novel as no single character seems truly contended in their marriage; the book does not shy away from more difficult subjects such as infidelity, spousal abuse and generational trauma.
Alharthi adopts a fragmented style as the novel meanders through different perspectives and times, moving both forwards and backwards chronologically, switching between characters and from 3rd person narration to a 1st person 'stream of consciousness' style as one of the husbands reflects on past events. The effect is a set of short, though rich, and interconnected vignettes, each which give a brief glimpse into each character's state at a particular point in time while also providing insight into how the changes in Oman have influenced cultural norms and expectations, particularly around class and gender. There are also snippets of classic Arabic poetry nestled within chapters, and these also serve to illustrate how love and romance is conceptualised culturally.
At times, there are so many characters it can verge on confusing, and I did have to consult the family tree several times - I would recommend this book to those who are already a fan of a transient style of writing and are keen to gain a more intimate view into Omani culture, but if you enjoy a clearer plot or more linear narrative this may not be for you.