Book: Celestial Bodies
Author: Jokha Alharthi
Translation: Marilyn Booth
Publisher: Sandstone Press
Buy the book here
Review by Sophie Jai
“Know that the stars of the firmament empty their gems into the moon, and the moon spills them into the water… Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matter of this lower world. And so it is a guide to all things.”
How does one live a life if their fate is almost determinedly sealed by the stamps of history?
This is the question Jokha Alharthi explores in Celestial Bodies, a literary fiction novel spanning three generations of an Omani family navigating love, loss, and identity in the village of al-Awafi. Celestial Bodies has already made an impact, winning the 2019 Man Booker International prize and Alharthi becoming the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English.
The story weaves between the past and present of an expansive family – sometimes told from the first person, sometimes from the third. Each character has their own internal struggle, stemming from a range of social issues – political change, the expectations of marriage and the effects of death in a small village.
But in the more recent generations, we see characters whose miseries are rooted in the lack of love. There are three sisters – Mayya, who marries another after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who waits for her beloved to return from Canada – that each have a different understanding of what love is. Azzan, a husband, who is so enamoured with someone who is not his wife, he prays to be free from his mistress’ throes: “Afraid! My heart’s been snatched away and it sits high in the eagles’ nest. The black expanses that shadow my heart crowd all of the other images out, I cannot see them in its mirror.”
And the dear Abdallah, a husband, son and father who yearns for the love of his father and wife, despite their cruel hand and cold shoulder.
Celestial Bodies, like many family sagas, looks to history to understand the present. But in no way does the story follow a linear structure. Rather than follow one main character who is presented with a conflict which triggers their search for a solution, Alharthi chaotically and bravely reveals the mosaic of this family’s fate through the slave trade, religion and social expectations by leaping in out and of time, narrative point of view and even typography.
Gasps of poetry breathe through the plot’s complexity, speaking most touchingly about love:
“There’s no freedom in love, and you can’t choose – others are there, or they’re not,”
and, “The beloved’s face gives yours more beauty / The more you give it your gaze.”
Though not an ‘easy’ read, readers will need to work out who is who, and when is when (a family map is provided at the beginning of the book to assist), Celestial Bodies is a truly a work of brave fiction that, in its style and structure, reflects how shambolic the events and impact of history can be.