Book Review : Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi
By Susma Sharma Gurumayum
Jokha Alharthi’s book, Celestial Bodies is an Arabic book translated into English by Marilyn Booth. It won the Man Booker International Prize, 2019, quite deservingly. Man Booker International Prize (now International Booker Prize) is an international literary award for translated fiction which has been in existence in the same form since 2016, with an incipient beginning in 2004, accompanying the Man Booker Prize (now Booker Prize).
August is women in translation month, which makes this book very relevant this month. Both the author and the translator deserve to be applauded for this intelligent piece of literature. Not having read the book in original, in Arabic, I can only guess that not much were lost in translation.
In a subtle and ingenious language, the author weaves the tale of three sisters in a village in Oman; Mayya – the quiet one, Asma – the reader and the logical one, Khwaja – the beautiful and passionate one; about their lives, and the lives interrelated and interconnected with them. The book features strong woman characters like Qamar and Zarifa. The former is designated crazy as is the norm in all patriarchal societies, for a woman who chooses for herself in defiance of what is expected of her.
Mayya married Abdallah because her family fixed it for her; she had no say in it. When she had a daughter, one of the older aunts said, “The first one’s a girl, and a girl comes to raise her little brothers. Ten boys will follow her, God willing.” Sentences like these depict internalized patriarchy speaking through older women. Mayya lived her life, never fully. Her daughter was different. She was a human who lived, made mistakes, yes, but lived. When Maya decided to name her daughter London, there was a hue and cry. How could she name her daughter something no one names, a name so not traditional, how does the husband allow it, her husband shamed for being a pushover, for being not man enough to control the naming of his daughter by his wife. No gender wins in patriarchy.
Asma always quoted the scriptures to negate illogical practices which were prevalent. Her marriage suffocated her initially but gradually, “She formed her own celestial orbit. In the end, and with a great deal of patience, self-examination, and occasional sacrifice, they learned to create enough space that each could orbit freely.”
Khwaja waited to be loved all her life. She lived through her husband’s neglect for her, his cheating, his inconsiderateness. But finally, she let go. When he came back for good, she was no longer available for him. There was a limit to human endurance, and women are humans too.
Abdallah’s story talks about how childhood abuse is traumatic and how it affects a person’s life till the end, how an abusive incident is lived over and over again; in morose days, and in nightmares. How truly he says, “when we are away from home, in new strange places, we get to know ourselves better”. Abdallah’s first person narration breaks the monotony of the whole book’s third person narration spicing up the reading experience.
There in an air of mystery in Alharthi’s story telling. Some events are not completely revealed in plain words which leave the readers guessing till and end, and even after that. In line with this mysteriousness, the book ends with Abdallah’s words, “And I came out of the water dry.”
In its essence, this book is about a patriarchal society transitioning to a modern one, with women and subordinate men bearing the brunt of the confusion and conflict arising out of the process of change, as is the case of emerging and developing countries where identity, interpersonal and intrapersonal spaces are questioned.
(Susma Sharma Gurumayum, Jr. MCS/SDC, is an occasional contributor to Blue Bannerman Reviews. The writer can be contacted at [email protected])
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