- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (June 21, 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1912240165
- ISBN-13: 978-1912240166
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 281 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Celestial Bodies Paperback – 21 June 2018
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`A richly imagined, engaging and poetic insight into a society in transition and into lives previously obscured.''-The Man Booker International Prize judges' `It skilfully builds suspense by creating "Aha!" moments as characters come to better understand their pasts.'-Marcia Lynx Qualey, The National' `Compelling...'-Women In Translation' `Blends the rhythms of daily life with magic and legend.'-Muhammad Barrada' `Well written and multi-faceted, as every book long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize ought to be.'-Dolce Belleza' `Delivers the reader immediately into the world of the marginal, forgotten, most subaltern sectors of society.'-Ibrahim al-Hajari' `This novel is interesting as a lens through which to view an important time in the transition of Omani society'-The Wee Review' `Finished it in a couple of sittings, addictive, compelling, informative and completely fascinating to read! Definitely recommend it, fingers crossed it appears on the short list too.'-Fiona Sharp, Independent Book Reviews; `A beautifully written and very moving story.'-Nicola Sturgeon; `Fascinating.'-The Guardian; `Alharthi has a strong narrative gift, transporting the reader into all the intimacies of a close-knit family group.'-The Bay Magazine; `Brings a distinctive and important new voice to world literature.' -The Irish Times; 'An ambitious, sweeping, highly assured piece of fiction, in which the early 20th century jostles with the present day.' -The Herald
About the Author
Jokha Alharthi is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, a children's book, and three novels in Arabic. Fluent in English, she completed a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry in Edinburgh, and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. She has been shortlisted for the Sahikh Zayed Award for Young Writers and her short stories have been published in English, German, Italian, Korean, and Serbian.
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This is the story of three generations, focussing on threes sisters; Mayya, who marries Abdullah, Asma who marries out of a sense of duty and Khawla, who is waiting for her beloved who has emigrated to Canada. Abdullah gets a significant voice, mourning the death of his own father, and the printed text distinguishes the chapters devoted to him. Is that because he is a significant male character, I wondered?
Mayya, early in the book gives birth to the next generation – a little girl whom they name London arrives into their lives. It is the story and evolution of family members, their lives, loves and losses that are at the heart of the novel. There is much to learn about Omani culture, the history, the slave culture in their history and what the future might look like.
I didn’t find it quite as enthralling as I had hoped, this is probably due to my lack of knowledge of Omani culture – there are many obscure references that can be a little bewildering to a reader from outside the culture, yet it proved to be an interesting and informative challenge. The translation by Marylin Booth reads well and the writing is quite lyrical. I do think it would be a great novel to take on any trip to the country as it would be such an immersive read.
Its failings: the stories of the many people in it career disconcertingly all over the place chronologically in a blizzard of mainly very short chapters (a few of which seem to me to have no point at all). As a result, there are many disjointed allusions which will be understood (if at all!) only later. Family relationships take some time to become clear, and some, like two uncles and their wives, are never named. The many Arab names are difficult to remember, especially when one is Zayd and another is Zayid. The book has no shape and no proper ending. Neither the English title nor the original Arab one, literally “Ladies of the Moon”, seem to me to have any connection with the story.
Its merits: we learn much about Oman: of its civil war in the 1950s, and its relationship with Britain. More importantly, principally through the lives of three sisters, part of a sprawling family, we see changes that have come about in Omani society over three generations as the country emerged into the modern world in the 1960s after its oil wealth was exploited. In their mother’s time, for example, women were expected to give birth at home in a standing position and without crying out in pain. We learn about the rituals accompanying births, weddings and deaths. During their adolescence, girls were segregated in a room of their own, on the other end of the courtyard, to keep them away from visiting male relatives and from women talking together about their experiences. There are odd traditions, like a mother not being present at her daughter’s wedding. Poetry plays an important part: long poems are learnt by heart and recited to each other.
The three sisters were born, I deduce, in the 1970s. (There are next to no dates in the book).
The eldest of them, Mayya, accepted an arranged marriage to Abdallah, although she was in love with another man to whom she had never spoken. She herself was delivered of a daughter in a missionary hospital, but she returned with her baby, whom she named “London”, to her mother’s home for the next forty days during which all kinds of rituals were performed to ward off evil.
The second sister, Asma, also accepted an arranged marriage. She would have fourteen children, and he relationship between herself and her husband, in which they are both dependent on and independent of each other, is subtly described.
The third sister, Khawla, had since their childhood been committed to her cousin, Nazir, who was now at a university in Canada. He did come back to marry her, but it was hardly the kind of marriage she had anticipated.
The girls’ paternal grandfather had bought a slave, Zarifa, and would not recognize the 1926 abolition of slavery in Oman. Zarifa, though now free, remained as a servant in the family, and first mothered the girls’ father, Abdallah, after Abdallah’s mother had died (how she died is an unresolved mystery), and she then played an important part in the lives of Abdalla’s descendants. She believes in djinns who need to be placated.
Much of the narrative is Abdallah’s. While he is on a business flight to Frankfurt (at some time after the girls had grown up and Abdallah had become a grandfather), he reminisces in a disjointed manner about the various periods in his and his family’s life. He has been haunted for many years after the death of his violent and bad-tempered father by a nightmarish punishment the latter had once inflicted on his then young son.
I have described only a small part of the content of this strange novel. It is only because it won the 2019 Man-Booker Prize that I persevered in reading it to the end; but I am truly astonished that it should have won the prize. It is quite the worst-organized book I have ever read.