This winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and national bestseller is “an innovative reimagining of the family saga . . . Celestial Bodies is itself a treasure house: an intricately calibrated chaos of familial orbits and conjunctions, of the gravitational pull of secrets" (The New York Times Book Review).
In the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who chooses to refuse all offers and await a reunion with the man she loves, who has emigrated to Canada.
These three women and their families, their losses and loves, unspool beautifully against a backdrop of a rapidly changing Oman, a country evolving from a traditional, slave-owning society into its complex present. Through the sisters, we glimpse a society in all its degrees, from the very poorest of the local slave families to those making money through the advent of new wealth.
The first novel originally written in Arabic to ever win the Man Booker International Prize, and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English, Celestial Bodies marks the arrival in the United States of a major international writer.
Alharthi's ambitious, intense novel her first to be translated into English and winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize examines the radical changes in Oman over the past century from the perspectives of the members of several interconnected families. With exhilarating results, Alharthi throws the reader into the midst of a tangled family drama in which unrequited love, murder, suicide, and adultery seem the rule rather than the exception. She moves between the stream-of-consciousness musings and memories of businessman Abdallah as he flies to Frankfurt and vignettes from the lives of those in his family, the slaves who raised him under the rule of his abusive father, and the members of the large family he married into. These include, among many others, a wife who apparently loves her sewing machine more than him, her two conflicted sisters, a father-in-law conducting a torrid love affair with a Bedouin woman, and an unhappy physician daughter. The scenes establish the remarkable contrasts among the generations, whose members are united primarily by a fierce search for romantic love. The older generation has grown up with strict rules and traditions, the younger generation eats at McDonald's and wears Armani jeans, and the members of the middle generation, particularly the women, are caught between expectations and aspirations. The novel rewards readers willing to assemble the pieces of Alharthi's puzzle into a whole, and is all the more satisfying for the complexity of its tale.
Patience paid off
By the time I finished this book I could say I liked it, but it was a rocky start. Some of the content felt superfluous—I would think, why did the author include this? Sometimes she would come back around to it and fit it into the whole of the book, sometimes not. It wasn’t until I got to the last third of the book that I felt a cohesiveness to most of the story. This structure did not seem necessary to the storytelling, so I would have preferred a different flow. That said, It was a good story and characters, as well as insight into another culture, which I really appreciate.