Khalid ibn Issa doesn’t rank as one of the primary figures in Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies. The novel’s densely peopled; though not that long, I’d call it a saga, blazing a switchback trail across a number of families, generations, and continents. The crowded stage only admits Khalid in the late going, and what’s more he’s spent most of his life away from the main setting, one of the desert towns of Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula. Nevertheless, though raised and schooled in Cairo, the son of an emigrant, he reveals both the story’s defining quandary and something about how it keeps us caught up in reading:
I hadn’t ever had the feeling that our worlds were so linked, so frighteningly enmeshed, the worlds of me and my family, until Ghaliya died. ...[I]t suddenly became frighteningly clear to me—to me, the free, the liberated artist—whose head was full of freedom—how deep the hidden ties between us went, how strong they were, and how my world could be destroyed in a moment if theirs caved in.
Alharthi’s novel is the first Arabic fiction to capture the Man Booker International Prize (for work in translation, as opposed to the other, better-known Booker, for writers in English). Earlier, the woman took home an award in her native Oman, where she’s got several titles in print. Plainly, she had no small gift to begin with, but in this story she’s honed it to a master’s edge.
Celestial Bodies delivers a cornucopia, the drama tasty whether it concerns a long day of overwrought celebration, scented with incense and envy, or a midnight tryst in the desert, mixing torment and ecstasy. Juggling multiple perspectives, eschewing straightforward chronology, the narrative coheres nevertheless. It settles into paired family stories: one a marriage that achieves mature happiness, with children and professional lives, and the other a mother’s mysterious death, revealing over time the damage done by the culture’s oppression of women, as well as a slave system that lasted into the 20th century. Overall, as in some sprawling canvas by Brueghel, tragedy strikes a balance with better, and both outcomes bear out Khalid’s discovery: the shocking power of old-country ties, buried but bristling with life.
Brueghel however makes a less illuminating comparison than Alharthi’s contemporary Elena Ferrante. Both women explore tensions expressed in the best title of the Neapolitan Quartet: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Indeed, Celestial Bodies makes recurring visits to a figure suspended between homelands, in mid-flight from Oman to Germany. This is Abdallah, husband to Mayya; his business trip establishes the story’s present, when Oman is one of the few stable and prosperous corners of the Middle East, but the man feels far from comfortable. Behind his outward success lurks the ghost of an abusive father, and it’s his mother whose inexplicable demise haunts the novel throughout. As for his wife, their bond is strong, they have children, but it’s always stained with suffering: “I could not believe how much pain was crackling through the air, generated simply by Mayya’s being there.”
Abdallah’s are the only passages in first person, but even when these brief chapters slip into the man’s nightmares, they delve no more deeply into a sensibility than any of the dozen or so other points of view. Once in a very long while the novel’s sweeping ambitions will result in a rushed summary: “With the divorce finalized she began struggling with all of the difficult-to-untangle emotions that bruised her sense of self-respect...” Far more often, though, Alharthi remains alert to all the strains, small and large, of a feudal society lurching through sudden and bewildering updates. The compromises the characters hammer out prove charming at times, at other times heartrending (in one episode, a dying child matters less than a local sheik’s vanity). Even when a former slave reverts to Bedouin magic, however, her desperation has a bedrock familiarity.
The magic, in this case, has consequences entirely concrete. Those bear on the two-hearted principal narrative, so I can’t reveal more, other than to note the toxins present in some desert plants. What matters for my review, rather, is the victim of the slave’s curse—another woman. An extraordinary range of female sensibility, from sisterhood to sheer hate, enlivens the narrative throughout, and Alharthi’s frankness about her women’s uglier moments in no way lessens her profound sympathy for how their status remains, under the Omani monarchy, second-class. Their subjugation triggers fascinating strategies in each of the three sister protagonists, Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, sometimes perverting their best instincts, but other times making room for sweet intensity: “his passion tormented her, pulling her inside a hellish paradise, a hard-to-sustain world of absolute pleasures. How ecstatically she blossomed... with a craving to feel everything.”
This incandescent early love, as it turns out, is the one that mellows by the story’s end into a balanced partnership. Thus it presents another formidable demonstration of Marilyn Booth’s skill as translator. She brings off all sorts of delicate shadings, even finding English equivalents for the rhymes in Bedouin proverbs. Beyond that, feminism so multifaceted again recalls Ferrante, and more importantly asserts why such fiction matters. A novel with the sock of Celestial Bodies puts a reader face to face with the complex humanity everywhere—even in the lower depths, the shithole countries.