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.

Sunday 25 August 2019

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones was a worthy winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The novel is the story of a miscarriage of justice. Not the sort that makes headlines, but the banal sort that leads to a man walking out the back door of a prison with his belongings in a bag after serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. It was written in protest against wrongful imprisonment and mass incarceration, endemic among Black men in the US. (One quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in US jails, and Black men are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white men.)

Ray and Celestial have been married barely a year when they find themselves staying in a motel near his parents’ home in Alabama. They have a foolish quarrel, he goes out to get ice from the dispenser – and a chance encounter with an elderly white woman leads to him being wrongfully accused of rape.

This is Alabama, and even though Celestial can testify to his spending the night beside her in bed, Ray is convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The middle section of the novel is told through the letters Ray and Celestial exchange while he is in prison. Neither she nor anyone in their families doubts his innocence, but the strain placed upon their young marriage is almost unbearably painful to read, as they drift further and further apart in their experience of life. Jones barely hints at the brutal realities of life behind bars – Ray is trying to shield Celestial from all that – but the little we glimpse is horrific enough.

The final section of the novel charts what happens when, after five years, Ray’s conviction is overturned and he is released from prison. As to the final outcome, you will have to read it for yourself. But Jones turns a magnifying glass on what imprisonment does to men and to their families.

As Jones said in her acceptance speech for the 2019 Women’s Prize: “Keep in your hearts and have empathy for the millions of people who are incarcerated around the world ... Hold your governments accountable for those who are held in bondage in our names.”

(Lest those of us in the UK should get too smug – a reminder that we have the highest rate of incarceration of any country in Europe – and one of the highest rates of recidivism.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Secret Letters from A to X by Nasrin Parvaz, Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Avoid If You Dislike: Looking at the human cost of at a justice system in crisis

Perfect Accompaniment: A perfectly ripe pear

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy a copy here.