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MBI 2019 Longlist: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Altharthi

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The first book read and reviewed by our panellists Book Worm and Emily is Celestial Bodies by Jokha Altharthi.

Synopsis from Goodreads: In the village of al-Awafi in Oman live three sisters. Mayya marries after a heartbreak. Asma marries from a sense of duty. Khawla rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. Elegantly structured, Celestial Bodies is the story of the history and people of modern Oman told through one family’s losses and loves.

Book Worm’s Thoughts: This is a demanding book because it requires the reader to concentrate on it and nothing else to get the full benefit of the tricksy interwoven storylines. I can see this may put some people off reading the book while others like me will half pick up on certain hints on the first reading and will then go back to immediately to the beginning to see what they have missed. Personally I enjoyed the book more on my second reading as I knew what was coming and could put the clues together as I read again.

The narrative technique is unusual as it blends multiple narrators and multiple time lines. For those of you thinking well lots of books do that, what makes this book different is that certain narrators appear in multiple timelines not just in one alternating timeline which is unusual at least amongst the books I have read.

In terms of character and plot this is a study of 3 sisters and the people who surround them and while certain characters have their own narrative voice and story arcs I didn’t feel that I got to know them particularly well. The plot tells the history of these women and while I like the way the end tied together and made sense of events from the past it is not a fast moving, action filled story more a gentle contemplation of life for women in Oman and how things have changed as the years pass.

Overall enjoyment gets the full 2 points and I loved reading about life in Oman, the superstitions surrounding women and childbirth, the harsh punishment system in the earlier years and how this changes with a change of rule, the traditional wedding ceremonies, what is valued in women, the role of family and how this all changes as the years go by and the country becomes less superstitious and tribal.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 14 /20

Emily’s Thoughts: I think this was a good book to start with as my first read from the list. I really enjoyed it, and though I probably doubt it will end up being my pick for winner I think it was a worthy book to be nominated for the prize and I’d definitely recommend it to anybody interested in the everyday lives of women in Oman. 

I’ve never read anything by an Omani writer, I feel like a lot of people will be in the same position, and I’m very glad to have read it and gained a bit of insight into a country I know almost nothing about.

This book was short and lyrically written with great, resonant, realistic characters and very little focus on plot (though I didn’t find myself missing it). The female characters were the heart of the story, particularly the core three sisters. Watching the different directions their lives took over a long period of time was fascinating, and the ways they all developed in different directions felt very real. Some of the passages describing how they came to regard their marriages once they had the hindsight to look back on them will stay with me for a long time.

I found myself getting a little lost in the secondary characters – perhaps my own fault for not paying enough attention to how people were related, but I would have preferred a tighter focus on the three sisters and less on the other people around them. I was always hoping to come back to Mayya, Asma and Khawla. I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time and though I can’t say I’m rooting for it to win, I’m very glad I read it.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 14 /20

Overall rating 14/20

Rankings:

Celestial Bodies 14/20

Have you read this one? Let us know what you thought.

For those joining us in reading around the world Oman is our country for May so this would be a good choice for then 🙂

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This one definitely appeals to me, thanks for sharing your thoughts on all these nominations, I’m waiting for reviews before choosing which to read and this sounds like my kind of book for sure. Interesting that another reviewer called this a book about men looking back in sadness and anger. I’m left wondering is the author a man or woman?

    Like

    March 28, 2019

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