Review: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

If Celestial Bodies can be said to have an inciting incident, it is the birth of London, daughter of Mayya and Abdallah, granddaughter of Salima and Azzan. London is born in a modern Muscat hospital, but is quickly taken back to al-Awafi, her family’s village in inner Oman, for traditional birth rituals. The villagers are unhappy with Mayya’s unconventional choice of name, and insinuate that Abdallah lacks control over his wife. It is an interesting time for Oman, rapidly modernising after a British-backed coup of the Sultanate in 1970. London belongs to the future; Salima belongs firmly to the traditional past. And Mayya straddles the gulf in between.

But London’s name is more than an odd choice, it is also a symbol of Mayya’s unrequited love for Ali, who went to study in the UK. These romantic fantasies are quashed by her family’s plan to marry her to Abdallah.

All of these threads are established with stunning economy over the first few pages.

There are a lot of characters in Celestial Bodies. There is Abdallah’s father, the Merchant Sulayman, and his mistress/slave Zarifa. Salima’s uncle, Shaykh Said, is ruler of one of the local clans. The village, and Azzan in particular, are haunted by Qamar, the Moon, a mysterious and enchanting desert woman. And then there are Salima’s three daughters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla.

These are the main characters, but even the minor characters get their moment to step into the spotlight. I am sure I lost track of at least one, only for them to show up and do something important later. For instance, Hanan is Mayya’s long-suffering friend and confidant, and has been listening to her romantic woes for years. We find out she has been gang-raped by a group of students at the school she teaches at. There is Masouda, a poor woman whose back and mind are deformed by years of labour, imprisoned by her daughter in her bathroom, who overhears something very significant. It is often these peripheral characters who throw the novel’s greatest punches.

The novel can essentially be divided in two. A relatively straight-forward narrative spills out from London’s birth, told from the perspective of various village characters. Then, in alternating chapters and different type, there is the first-person stream-of-consciousness of Adballah, on a flight to Germany in perhaps the 2010s, thinking about the major incidents of his life: the deaths of his mother and father, his village childhood, the birth of his children.

None of these are in chronological order, so good luck keeping all the events straight. But there are a number of incidents that characters return to over and over again, as if they cannot escape their gravity.

Celestial Bodies is many things. It is a family saga: of Salima and her three daughters and their various trials in love. It is a history: of 20th century Oman, and particularly of its colonisation and slavery. It is political commentary: of the sweeping changes to Omani society that brought globalisation and consumerism into conflict with traditionalism. It is, perhaps, an occult murder mystery: how exactly did Abdallah’s mother die? And above all it is a romance: between men and women, husbands and wives, lovers and mistresses. It is one of those novels that manages to stuff into it a complete world, an almost miraculous achievement for a 250-page book with a non-linear narrative.

I have read few books that take love as seriously as Celestial Bodies. The novel’s central image is derived from an old Arabic text (although which text exactly is debated by the characters). At the moment of creation, God created every soul in the shape of a ball. He then split each of these spheres into two, decreeing that each half will find its other.

These souls are guided by the Moon, said to be the celestial body that mediates between heaven and earth. Its effect depends on whether it is waxing or waning, and which planets it is approaching. But perhaps this is a red herring.

While some of the story’s characters are obsessed with romantic love, the novel itself seems less certain about it. It shows love that works through sheer hard work and compromise, and it shows catastrophic failures of unrequited romance. At times it seems to be satirising the power that the love of the poets holds over this society.

If love is shown to be the utopian ideal, its practice it shown to be rigidly gendered. Traditional Omani society is patriarchal, but as in many patriarchal societies the day-to-day operations of oppression are performed by the women on each other. Interestingly, there is perhaps one queer character in the novel, a man who pursues one of Abdallah’s sons in desperation. But homosexuality is depicted as an unimaginably horrific fate to befall a man, and is used to excuse some of the book’s most insidious horrors. Queerness is so peripheral it is almost unspoken.

All this talk of love is contrasted with brutal truth-telling about Oman’s slave history. At two points in the novel slavery is formally outlawed, but persists in al-Awafi. It is here the novel takes on an almost academic tone, referencing dates and historical figures, as if to bring them to light and make sure we don’t forget them.

Like the narrative, the writing – and its very excellent translation – achieves a kind of literary perfection that is hard to explain. I struggle to highlight a particular phrase or incident, so tightly bound is everything within the whole. Like many ‘perfect novels’, it left me a little cold. But I’m sure it will continue to resurface in my mind.

Gay rating: 1/5 for one intriguing sideways glance at queer lives in Oman.

Celestial Bodies is published by Sandstone Press.

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