Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Celestial Bodies is the Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International – first book in Arabic to do so, and the first book by an Omani woman to be translated into English.

The novel, whose original title translates into English as ‘The Ladies of the Moon', chronicles three generations of an extended Omani family – taking them from not long after the Second World War, when slavery, though illegal, was still commonplace, to the early part of the 21st Century and an uneasy relationship with a world that has changed almost too fast for comprehension.

It is not however told chronologically. The narrative passes back and forth between different characters and different time periods. There is Salima, domestic matriarch with =in a highly patriarchal society. Her husband Azzan and their three daughters: Mayya, the pragmatist, Asma, the scholar and Khawla the romantic. Abdallah, Mayya’s husband, haunted by memories of his brutal father. Their daughter, London, training to be a doctor. Zarifa, born a slave, who has played both substitute mother and substitute wife to the family who ‘owned’ her. Her daughter-in-law Shanna who locks her own mother away in cell, claiming she’s mad...

It’s a fascinating tapestry - a glimpse into a world that, to Western eyes, might belong a century or more in the past, were it not for the periodic intrusions of modern technology. A world that has been informed as much by the belief in the supernatural as much as it is by the rigid structures of the patriarchy.

The translation is beautifully handled. It includes translations of Arabic and Persian poetry, such as the 12th Century love poem, Layla and Manjun, with which Azzad seeks to beguile his Bedouin mistress, Qamar.

If you have never read anything translated from Arabic before, this is the perfect starting point.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela, If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa

Avoid If You Dislike: Fragmented narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: Coffee with cardamom

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction in Translation

Buy a copy here.

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