The title of Johka Alharthi’s novel, Celestial Bodies, put me in mind of an armillary sphere, which shows the dizzying ways that the heavenly bodies orbit and intersect. The metaphor is fitting given the way that the members of an extended Omani family influence and collide with each other just like moons and meteors.
Celestial Bodies is a challenging read, but in a good way. Marilyn Booth’s translation is pitch perfect. She leaves just enough untranslated to support the way Alharthi builds up the rich setting of the novel in mid-twentieth century rural Oman. What makes the book challenging is its structure. Alharthi switches perspective from character to character, decade to decade. Readers should either read this in as few sittings as possible or maybe take notes to keep track of what’s going on as family skeletons are unburied. There is a very helpful family tree at the beginning of Celestial Bodies to get us started.
Celestial Bodies spans from 1926 to the early 2000s. Through the twists and turns of the characters’ perspectives, we see Oman slowly opening up to the world. For some the world is opening up too slowly…for others, it’s opening up too quickly. There is a constant back and forth tension between the older and newer members of Merchant Sulayman’s family. Being a woman, I was struck over and over by the way that women seem to be the major force in keeping Omani traditions—even the ones that keep women cloistered, sometimes uneducated, and keep all life paths closed except wife and mother.
The more I read, the more I was fascinated by the family dynamics. Most of all, I was hooked on the delicate, moving psychological portraits packed into this book. Abdallah, one of the central figures, is a traumatized young man who just wants to be loved by his wife. He struggles with memories of his father’s abuse, as well as with the way that his beloved wife doesn’t seem to love him the way he wants to be loved. There’s also Zarifa, an enslaved woman who managed to find a modicum of power; she also had way too many secrets hiding under her bluff exterior.
Celestial Bodies is a marvel. It absolutely deserved this year’s Man Booker award for its complexity, skilled writing, and stunning characters. I loved this book.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.