Jokha Alharthi makes her American debut with Celestial Bodies, the first book by an Omani woman to be translated into English and the first novel originally written in Arabic to win the coveted Man Booker International Prize.
Although it’s framed as a novel that tracks the lives of three sisters, each navigating love and marriage within Oman’s rapidly evolving society, Celestial Bodies is far from a Middle Eastern Pride & Prejudice. Complex and challenging, Alharthi’s novel is less interested in chasing happily ever afters than in exploring Oman’s history of slavery, its cultural and class dynamics and the power of its women within a shifting but resolute patriarchy.
Celestial Bodies is comprised of nonlinear vignettes that highlight a dizzying number of members from a sprawling Omani family over the course of multiple generations. (The family tree at the book’s beginning is critical.) Each character is often given only a few pages—just enough to reveal some tantalizing or illuminating tidbit—before we are whisked on to someone else. Readers will have to work to assemble a cohesive portrait from the beautifully rendered puzzle pieces that Alharthi has scattered before them, but their efforts will be rewarded with a deeply immersive and enlightening reading experience.
The fragmented narrative and lack of obvious plot will not be for everyone, but the novel’s structure emphasizes the immutable passage of time and the changes that have transformed Oman over the last century. These changes are as unsettling for some of the characters as they are for the reader.
We read some books in order to peek into cultures and lives other than our own; others we read to better understand ourselves. Fascinating in its depiction of Oman and its intricacies, yet generous and sweeping in its humanity, Celestial Bodies offers its readers the rare opportunity to do both.