It’s Women in Translation month and I am notoriously bad at managing to fit a book in for it, but I have done this month! Ali kindly gave me this book for Christmas last year, and I have had it in mind to read for the project; then I really fancied reading a novel as I’ve been reading quite a lot of non-fiction, so here we are with an entry! (I realise this is going to mean more frequent reviews than normal for a few days to fit everything in – sorry!).

Jokha Alharthi (trans. Marilyn Booth) – “Celestial Bodies”

(25 December 2021, from Ali)

I’m not sure I’ve read a book by an Omani author or set in Oman before. I didn’t really get much of a sense of the history of this place from this impressionistic book (which did give me a lot in terms of relationships, culture and atmosphere, I hasten to add) so feel I need to brush up on the basic side of things another time.

Alternating between an omniscient narrator who swoops us into the lives and thoughts of various men and women of three generations, the middle generation being three sisters who have followed different paths in their personalities and marriages and first-person sections by Abdallah, husband of the oldest sister, travelling by plane from Oman to Germany, we dip back and forth through time, examining people through other people’s eyes, seeing there might be jinns and there might be magic or there might be women who carry out rituals of different kinds, and that what we wish for might come true but in a disappointing way.

The three sisters are the most vivid for me, one quiet, one bookish and vivacious, but keen to conform to her family’s wishes and one beautiful and stubborn, waiting for someone she then wishes she hadn’t got. There are love scenes in the desert, descriptions of slaving missions going back into the early 20th century, hints of progress and then dialling back on progress (especially in terms of women’s education). Abdallah also seems vivid and knowable, then his last section hints at terrible events, or does it? The narrative moves in a winding way through the three sisters’ weddings and married lives, darting back and forth.

The novel is very smoothly translated, as it doesn’t feel translated, if you see what I mean. Outbursts and cries in Arabic remain in Arabic but are understandable. A bit more fragmented of a read than I usually enjoy, but a powerful impression of a strong culture and ties that go back decades.