Alharthi, Jokha. Celestial Bodies. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019. RRP: $24.99, 243pp, ISBN:9781760529413.
These days you all go to the hospitals in Maskad, where those Indian women and those daughters of the Christians see every inch of you. Ayy wAllahi Mayya, I had you, and all your brothers and sisters, standing as tall as a grand mare. God be good to you, Sabeekah. There I was holding tight to the pole with both hands, and she was shouting at me, Ya waylik! If I hear even one little screech you’ll be sorry! Every woman brings babies out of her body, and what a scandal you are then, if you so much as whimper! (6)
Mayya is one of three sisters who live in the village of al-Awafi in Oman. When Mayya was born, her mother gave birth standing, as was the custom at the time. However, when it comes Mayya’s turn to deliver her first child, she travels to Muscat to give birth in the hospital. She, and her two sisters Asma and Khawala, are at the edge of a new world, different from the one their parents grew up in. In Celestial Bodies, several generations of al-Awafi families witness Oman evolve from a traditional society, redefining itself after the colonial era.
Jokha Alharthi’s Man Booker International winner doesn’t let us forget the heart and dreams of each of her characters, despite her immense canvas. Densely packed in an almost spiral structure, with a dizzyingly large cast of characters, Celestial Bodies takes us into the lives of its characters in snippets—the complexity of events that overlap and intertwine, the memories that fail and deny. Grieving a love that never was, Mayya names her infant daughter London, and spends forty days recovering in her mother’s home. London is a young woman in a disastrous relationship. Abdullah catches a flight to Frankfurt, grieving the death of his abusive father and the anger that now cannot find its target. It is a dreamscape of a novel, interlinked events gradually delivering a portrait of a world changing in every way.
Something burned inside me, though I didn’t, and don’t, know what it was. Something was consuming me. In the hospital, my father in a coma, I pushed the turban back from the top of my forehead and brought the scars of my deep wound, still so visible, as close as I could to his open eyes. Then I pushed the robe off my shoulder which still carried the harsh marks of knife blades and rough palm-fibre ropes.
Do you remember the day of the magpies? I whispered to him. He did not move. The hand that had tied me up in palm fibres and had thrust me down the well to dangle there head-first for what seemed like hours, my head and body colliding against the edges of its stone walls, did not move. (31)
The weave of the narrative, and number of characters, is so dense as to be confusing at times. It slowly comes into focus, one thread at a time, and is lost again, as a new character takes the stage for a moment, and then retreats. So condensed, the novel is a story of the coming of age of a country, all the more enjoyable for the bright clarity of each of its vignettes. A story that covers so much time, so much change, can become too broad, weakening its impact. But Celestial Bodies is coiled tight, and its characters take the lead. At its heart is a question of belonging, and community, and legacy, as a changing social landscape ripples down the generations. And ultimately, there are no answers to be gleaned, rather a series of lessons and reflections, loves and losses, that linger and unfurl slowly, much like the narrative itself.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.