Jokha Alharthi won the International Man Booker Prize, along with her translator Marilyn Booth, in 2019. The novel that skyrocketed Alharthi to such international acclaim is only her second: Celestial Bodies. It’s also the first by an Omani woman to be translated into English. Only 80 pages in, I am in awe.
- Many ambitious writers overextend themselves with their characters. The last novel I read was an example of this. With nearly two dozen characters, the majority of them point of view, the author never gave me time to know each of them. By the end, I felt distanced rather than connected by the excess. Alharthi juggles at least that many in even fewer pages, but each character is so precisely drawn, at once archetypal and impossibly complex, that they are indelible. I will never forget Mayya, with her quiet exterior and her passionate depths.
- The novel can be read in a myriad of ways: as family drama, a series of romances, or an allegory of Oman’s modernization. It’s steeped in myth, and some of its characters (Qamar and Masouda come to mind) are fables, taking in far more than their one life.
- Alharthi’s work, while deeply rooted in Oman, doesn’t shy away from the ethical quandaries of its society. From the intergenerational effects of slavery to the intersections of colorism and classism, Alharthi dives deep and gives voice to a variety of experiences on all sides of these divides.
- Her prose is lyrical, but in a deceptively simple way. I couldn’t help but think of James Baldwin. When writing in first person, Alharthi disappears completely into her characters. When in third, her sentences sometimes twist around their centers, but the words she chooses are straightforward, precise, even commonplace—but used in that delicious way that gives them a new texture.
- The structure is as graceful and sweeping as Arabic calligraphy. It moves back and forth, and forward, in time. We have a husband and wife who cannot seem to get a handle on the present, always slipping back into separate pasts. The wife’s mother can think only of her children’s futures. A daughter lives always in the present. Each chapter takes up one of their threads, interweaving it with the others for a few pages, before turning to another. But even with all this layered complexity, the narrative is completely accessible.
I’m confident that Alharthi’s star will continue to rise. At only 41, she is at the beginning of her career as a novelist. And according to Wikipedia, Naguib Mahfouz is still the only Arab writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And that was in 1988. Alharthi has much of Mahfouz’s scope and deftness with character and culture, but she also offers a completely new voice and perspective. This novel is a masterful accomplishment. I’m excited to see where she takes us next.