When Jokha Alharthi's second novel appeared in 2010, it marked the arrival of a major literary talent. Originally titled Sayyidat al-Qamr (Ladies of the Moon), it is a densely woven, deeply imagined tour de force that follows Omani families between the 1880s and the early years of the 21st century. Translated by Marilyn Booth and published quietly in 2018 as Celestial Bodies, the book is suddenly in the spotlight.
It's one of 13 titles longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, and Alharthi is one of only six Arab authors – the first from the Arabian Gulf – to ever be longlisted for the prize.
While the novel is historical fiction, it does not follow an easy trajectory from "tradition to modernity" or "local to global". The book scorns romanticised history and happily-ever-afters. Individual characters are often taunted when they use romance as a way of understanding the world. When Abdallah asks his wife Mayya if she loves him, her retort is: "It's the Egyptian films, have they eaten up your mind?"
Celestial Bodies never actually gets to the "ever after". Instead, it continually re-evaluates both present and past. And while the book doesn't tell us how things turn out, it skilfully builds suspense by creating "Aha!" moments as characters come to better understand their pasts.
The power of history
Every character – woman or man, enslaved or free – finds themselves trapped, in some way, by history. Yet they also grasp at liberation. Mayya asserts herself by naming her daughter “London”, despite the whispers and giggles of her family. Still, this name does not free her daughter from Omani history. Young and privileged, she remains stuck, unable to move on. After her divorce, the narrative asks: “So why did London’s hand remain frozen in place, letting itself be crushed under the weight of the page, until she could no longer turn it?”
Other characters don’t even try to turn the page; instead, they ignore their pasts. Mayya’s sister Khawla loves paperback romances and has an apparently happy marriage. But in middle age, the “wild forest” inside Khawla awakens, ripping through “all the old sheets with which you tried to cover it and choke off all those thorns”.
Characters might try to paper over painful pasts, yet the thorns always find a way in. It is the same with Oman's history of slavery. The novel's main families have two originating ancestors: one is Hilal the Merchant, who earned his fortune in illegal weapons and whose son, Suleyman the Merchant, was a slaver; the other is Senghor, a man who is caught outside his village and dragged to a ship. He's brought to English plantation owners before he is sold in Oman.
Characters regularly remind themselves and others that slavery is illegal in Oman, which was one of the last countries to officially abolish it, ending the practice in 1970. Still, the oppression continues to affect both the characters who descended from the enslaved and those who descended from slavers.
Even heroic episodes can be a trap. Mayya's bookish sister Asma marries Khalid, an artist who struggles to escape his father's expectations. Khalid's father often reminded him: "His great-grandfather Shaykh Mansur bin Nasir was among the cavalry who combated Mutlaq the Wahhabi in his repeated raids on Omanis.
"He was in the battle where the Omanis held on so fiercely to their swords that their hands were stiff and rigid around them by the time darkness fell. The women soaked the fighters' hands in water until they softened enough for the swords to drop."
It is a beautiful image, but a cage for Khalid, who finds freedom while painting horses and living in Cairo. He, too, is drawn back to Oman.
The translation does not coddle the reader who may be afraid of foreign words. Booth embroiders the text with the sound of Arabic wherever possible, maintaining rhythm and even rhyme, as well as the crackle and pop of the book's humour. Celestial Bodies is not a straightforward book, but readers who can leap nimbly into its stream will certainly find themselves carried away.
The shortlist for the prize will be announced on April 9, with the winner being announced on May 21 in London