Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth [in Booklist]
Jokha Altharthi makes literary history as the first female Omani author to be translated into English and as author of the first novel written in Arabic to win the Man Booker International Prize. She shares that extraordinary success with translator and Oxford professor Marilyn Booth, who reveals, “I like very much that Jokha does not write for readers who do not know Oman: she does not try to explain things.” Indeed, Althari’s unique structure demands vigilant participation as it is more jigsaw puzzle than linear narrative, and the skeletal family tree provided proves useful.
Set against Oman’s rapid shifts during the 20th century from slave-owning nation to oil-rich international presence are three generations of an upper-class Omani family: Salima, who survived a difficult childhood, and her husband, Azzan, who can’t resist the pull of the moon (goddess); their three (surviving) children – dutiful Mayya, book-obsessed Asma, and waiting Khawla; and Mayya and her husband Abdallah’s children – independent London, irresponsible Salim, and Muhammad, who has special needs. Most memorable perhaps is enslaved Zarifa, excluded from the family tree yet integrally bonded. Omnisciently narrated chapters are interrupted, with an obvious font-shift, by businessman Abdallah’s first-person, mostly in-flight monologues.
Pieced together, a robust village emerges, of alliances and betrayals, survival and murder, surrender and escape. Patient readers will be seductively, magnificently rewarded.