Celestial Bodies is the second novel by Omani novelist and academic Jokha Alharthi. An acclaimed work of Arabic fiction, it is the first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English and the first Arabic language novel to be awarded the Man Booker International Prize.
The novel charts the trials and tribulations of three generations of one Omani family, shaped by the rapid socioeconomic transformation and shifting outlooks of the Omani populace through the 20th century and in particular, Oman’s emergence as an oil rich nation in the 1960s.
At the heart of the novel are three sisters: Mayya, Khawla and Asma. The eldest, Mayya, acquiesces to a loveless marriage to wealthy Abdallah. The second daughter, Asma, seeks an education and is “not in any hurry to embrace all the joys of love in one gulp of intoxicating ether.” When she marries an artist, she uses his desire for status to further her own education. The youngest, Khawla, awaits the unlikely return of a cousin who has promised to marry her, from Canada.
The narrator, Abdallah speaks to us in the first person whilst the other characters, almost all women, speak in the third person. Though he is the son of a rich merchant, Abdallah is deeply insecure about his masculinity and is deeply in love with Mayya, who married him only out of a sense of duty. When he asks her if she loves him, she laughs in his face. Gradually, we navigate the darker elements of his family history, learning that Abdallah’s father made his fortune not by selling fruits, but from the illegal continuation of the slave trade.
Alharthi writes in a non-linear way, with the novel flowing back and forth between generations. This in turn reflects society’s transitions; almost all the characters end up migrating from their rural birthplaces to the capital, Muscat. “At first, London objected to the streets of the capital city that she said were designed only for ‘cars’ feet.’ Then she adapted herself, and she even came to like the long stretch of paved seaside corniche.” Meanwhile, the impact of the strong patriarchal system on the women and men affects each generation and individual in different ways, with it resulting in both confrontation and suffering.
We are granted privileged access to the lives of a range of characters which reflect the striking diversity of individuals within a relatively narrow setting. Through this multigenerational tracing of intimate family relationships, Alharthi tells a gripping story in the midst of Oman’s transitioning society, with all its new opportunities and pressures.