Sunday, 18 August 2019

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi
First published in Arabic in 2010. English language translation by Marilyn Booth published by Sandstone Press in June 2018.

One of my 2019 COYER Summer Hunt reads

How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Celestial Bodies is set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, where we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present. Elegantly structured and taut, Celestial Bodies is a coiled spring of a novel, telling of Oman's coming-of-age through the prism of one family's losses and loves.

Despite my hit-and-miss relationship (mostly misses) with Booker prize winners, I really wanted to love Celestial Bodies. It's the first Omani authored novel I have read and its focus on the changes in women's lives across an extended period of time appealed to me. I think Alharthi includes three generations of women although I did struggle to maintain a good sense of how the characters were linked and in which eras they belonged because of how the story jumps around. If you prefer a linear narrative, this probably won't be the best book choice for you!

Alharthi touches on several aspects of Oman's turbulent past including colonialism, slavery, religious wars and emigration. Despite it's small village setting though, Celestial Bodies manages to feel as though it speaks for the whole country rather than a single community. I enjoyed that this is very much a book about Omani women and I didn't get any sense that it was written with an eye to Western audiences so it felt authentic throughout. Moments such as Masouda's isolation reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper, but Celestial Bodies doesn't bemoan women's place in Omani society. Instead I felt Alharthi placed her characters simply before readers in order to show us their experiences and expectations.

I did love Alharthi's rich poetic prose. Even in translation I could appreciate certain beautifully composed sentences and imagine the original Arabic must be even more satisfying. I found myself becoming immersed in chapters, particularly those centred around Mayya, Khawla or Azzan, but didn't like abruptly being thrust into a different life or era by the ensuing chapter. At times I felt almost as though Celestial Bodies was a short story collection. Of course the characters do eventually all connect and, by the end of the book, I could envisage the family's history but, in order to fully enjoy this story, I wanted a stronger narrative flow.

Etsy Find!
by Anteeka in
Nazareth, Israel

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Books by Jokha Alharthi / Historical fiction / Books from Oman


  1. This sounds like a really great book club book Stephanie!! ❤️ I admit that this is a part of the world that I think many of us are interested in and especially love the idea its own voices!

    1. I love being able to get hold of own voices books from so many different countries these days. I think it helps everybody to understand each other that bit more if we look outside our immediate borders

  2. Interesting that you seem to be mixed on Booker prixze winners. I hope your next Omani author book will be one that you can really love. I might just try this one for the beautiful prose.

    1. I'd absolutely recommend reading Celestial Bodies. There's a lot to like about it despite the problems