Originally published: Jun 2018 (first published 2010)
Author: Jokha Alharthi (Translated by Marilyn Booth)
Published by: Sandstone Press
Length: 256 pages
Reading dates: 21-25 July 2019
This was chosen as our July book club read. We don’t read every prize winning book that is published but the blurb on Celestial Bodies appealed to us so we thought we would give it a go.
Based mostly in the fictional city of al-Awafi in the middle Eastern country of Oman, we meet 3 sisters. Mayya who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak, Asma who marries from a sense of duty and Khawla who rejects all offers of marriage while waiting for her beloved to return from Canada.
I think based on the blurb I was hoping for a look more at maybe the relationship between the sisters but we didn’t get much of that or at least not in a way I would have liked. I have to admit I am intimidated by prize winning novels – I don’t think I am “clever” enough and I worry that I am not going to “get them”. Despite reading this with those feelings there were certain aspects to this book I did very much enjoy. There is a lot about the culture of the people which I found fascinating, knowing next to nothing about it. We hear about the food (always a source of interest to me!), the rituals around pregnancy and childbirth, weddings and death. There are some beautiful, almost poetic passages and the translation was just amazing.
I did find the book a little confusing in places – there are a lot of characters. We hear a lot from Mayya’s husband Abdallah (he is the only one who we hear from in the first person) and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. But we also hear about the 3 sisters, their parents and their servants. It does tend to jump about a bit between characters and different time periods. It helped me a lot to read a big chunk near the beginning in one sitting as it made it much easier for me to get a grasp on the story. And the family tree at the beginning was invaluable – fellow book clubbers who read it on an e-reader really struggled with keeping track of everyone and I was still referring to it right until the end!
Overall thoughts from book club were that it was an interesting read from a cultural point of view but was a little confusing. Marks ranged from 4-7/10. I’m glad I read it as it is not the sort of book I would normally pick up and it is good to be challenged. I think I’ve said before how I really enjoy a book that teachers we something, either about a period in history or a place and this certainly ticked that box.
The Man Booker International Prize 2019
The International Booker Prize is awarded annually for a single book, translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. The vital work of translators is celebrated, with the £50,000 prize money divided equally between the author and translator.
- Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)
- The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated from the French by Alison L Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
- The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated from the German by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail)
- Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
- The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press)
- The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran (Chile), translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)
About the authors:
Jokha al-Harthi (born July 1978) is an Omani writer and academic. She was educated in Oman and in the United Kingdom. She obtained her PhD in classical Arabic literature from Edinburgh University. She is currently an associate professor in the Arabic department at Sultan Qaboos University.
al-Harthi has published three collections of short stories and three novels (Manamat, Sayyidat el-Qamar and Narinjah). She has also authored academic works. Her work has been translated into English, Serbian, Korean, Italian, and German and published in Banipal magazine. She was also one of eight participants in the 2011 IPAF Nadwa (writers’ workshop). al-Harthi won the Sultan Qaboos Award for Culture, Arts and Literature, for her novel Narinjah (Bitter Orange) in 2016.
Sayyidat el-Qamar was shortlisted for Zayed Award 2011 and has been translated into English by Marilyn Booth. It was published in the UK by Sandstone Press in June 2018 under the title Celestial Bodies, and won the Man Booker International Prize 2019.
Marilyn Louise Booth (born 24 February 1955) is an author, scholar and translator of Arabic literature. Since 2015, she has been the Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.