Book Review: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Country: Oman

“Life appeared to her sharply divided in two parts, like night and day: what we live, and what lives inside of us.”

Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies

We all know, or at least should know, that life is one big compromise. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t experience joy. We snatch glimpses of joy here and there. Sometimes we don’t even need to snatch it. Between unrequited love and duty, between shattered dreams and new beginnings, we carve out a life for ourselves of which we can be proud. If we are lucky.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, making it the first novel to win by an author from the Gulf. The book revolves around three families and their relationship with each other in the Omani village of al-Awafi. The men and women in the book are trying their best to get by with the expectations of Omani culture, while trying to find happiness despite the cruelty they face.

I could relate to the women in the book even though our cultural backgrounds are diametrically opposite. Their lives were their own to live and yet not their own. Trying to navigate the unwritten rules of their society which inevitably made them lead bitter-sweet lives. From the outside the women seem oppressed under the patriarchy. But as we get more involved with the characters, we realize that the women are not completely powerless. Like Mayya, who decides to name her daughter London to the chagrin of the rest of the village. Or Khawla, after years of unshakeable love for her wayward husband, who decides to return to her and be faithful after all the years of philandering, decides then that she wants a divorce. There is Qamar too, a beautiful Bedouin woman, who seduces Salima’s husband.

They have their ways of getting what they want, of course not without compromise. What was interesting for me was that the men also seemed to be oppressed by the patriarchy and societal expectations. I felt a lot of empathy for Abdhalla, who was deeply traumatized by the harsh punishments meted out by his father.

The fragmented narration needs a bit getting used to. I had to keep going back and forth to remember who was who, but a few chapters in the characters became clear to me. Once in the groove, I found the writing to be very lyrical and poetic. Before reading this book, however, I would recommend watching the Al Jazeera documentary on Oman (linked below).

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