Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

by Sunita

I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.

The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.

The depictions of servants and slaves are also well done (slavery was legal in Oman well into the 20thC). The tension between being of the family and yet fully subservient to it is well portrayed, and the relationships between mother-figure servants and children as exemplified in Abdallah’s relationship with Zafira are also illuminating.

There were a couple of aspects of the novel that really frustrated me, though, and I kept putting the book down and picking it up again. First, as other reviewers have remarked, there are a lot of characters and since each chapter switches POVs, it’s easy to get lost. I didn’t have trouble keeping the players straight but information would be introduced and then dropped, even when it seemed important. Some characters who are really interesting get very little on-page time, and long periods of time in which much happens are summarized quickly (or worse, treated as infodumps).

Second, the writing, while occasionally lovely, was often straightforward to the point of being pedestrian, and we were told much more than we were shown. I’m fine with telling if the way of telling is effective, but this was more a “and then this happened, and then she did that” kind of thing and it took away from the power of what was being described.

Finally, I got really tired of Abdallah and I kept wondering why we were seeing so much through his perspective. I thought perhaps that it was because he was both a man (and therefore had access to events and experiences that the women were denied) and because he was a fulcrum in the family: cared for by Zafira the main servant, son-in-law of Salima, husband of Mayya and brother-in-law of Asma and Khawla, and son of the merchant whose money and position allowed the family to take advantage of social and economic changes. But even so, we didn’t need him, we had all these amazing women, and I wanted to spend more time with them. The successes of the novel is the way the women are centered and the way in which they are all individuals, but the failure is that we spend more time with the men of the house than them (I haven’t even talked about Azzan, Salima’s husband, who also gets a lot of page time). Their lives are focused on their relationships and their quests for love, but that made sense to me because even in the case of London, they are still embedded in a society in which they are seen through the lenses of their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers.

In conclusion, then, I can see why this novel is getting a lot of praise: it depicts a society that is not well known and it reveals how its specific trajectory also reflects more universal themes. It centers women and shows their individual and varied natures, circumstances, and experiences. But it ultimately did not succeed that well for me as a novel, because the characters never escaped the author’s hand to live fully on the page.