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CELESTIAL BODIES by Jokha Alharthi Kirkus Star


by Jokha Alharthi ; translated by Marilyn Booth

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-948226-94-3
Publisher: Catapult

Omani author Alharthi's novel, the first by a woman from that country to be translated into English, won the 2019 International Man Booker Prize with its sweeping story of generational and societal change.

The book opens with a betrothal in a well-to-do Omani family. Mayya, a serious girl who excels at sewing, obediently marries the son of Merchant Sulayman although she's secretly in love with a young student just returned from England. Later she surprises everyone by naming her firstborn daughter London. The story alternates between third-person chapters and ones narrated by Mayya's husband, Abdallah, a businessman whose childhood was marred by his father's cruelty and mother's mysterious death. Through the complex, interwoven histories of the two principal families and their households and their town of al-Awafi, we witness Oman's shift from a slave-owning, rural, deeply patriarchal society to one in which a girl with the unlikely name of London can become a doctor, marry for love, and obtain a divorce. The great strength of the novel lies in the ways this change is shown not as a steady progression from old to new but as a far more complicated series of small-scale transitions. Abdallah was largely raised by his father's slave Zarifa, whose mother gave birth to her on the day slavery was supposedly abolished at the 1926 Slavery Convention in Geneva. Zarifa is sold as a teenager by Shaykh Said to Merchant Sulayman and later married off to a slave kidnapped from Africa who screams "from the depths of his sleep, We are free people, free!" Both her husband and son leave Oman, and although Zarifa eventually follows, her heart remains in al-Awafi. The narrative jumps among a large and clamorous cast of characters as well as back and forth in time, a technique that reinforces the sense of past and present overlapping. In an image that captures the tension between old and new, a family uses its satellite dish as a trough for livestock. Salima, Mayya's mother, herself a kidnapped teenage bride, thinks sadly as she prepares the next of her daughters for her traditional arranged marriage, "We raise them so that strangers can take them away." But the daughter in question, Mayya's sister Asma, welcomes wedlock, because "marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home."

A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into Omani history and society.