I get so excited whenever I start a novel that begins with a family tree. Something about the style of a family saga really appeals to me in the way it traces how individuals function both independently and as part of a family. “Celestial Bodies” mainly focuses on the stories of three sisters in modern day Oman, but it also presents a number of perspectives of different family members and people connected to that family. Like Sara Taylor's novel “The Shore” it also moves backwards and forwards in time showing how the decisions and circumstances of earlier generations impact the current generation. This creates a poignant picture of what this family inherits but also a larger picture of how the country of Oman has changed so rapidly in its values and social structures (especially in regards to slavery and women's rights) over the past century. But what engrossed me throughout this novel was the skilful way in which Jokha Alharthi entrenches the reader in each perspective to immerse you in their dilemmas and (often) hidden passions.
It was fortuitous that I happened to be in the middle of reading “Celestial Bodies” when it was announced as the winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize. While I enjoyed the stories it was presenting it's the type of book where you can feel a bit disorientated until you understand its plethora of characters and the various timelines at play. For a while it felt like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how the pieces fit together. But the work in putting it together yields a lot of pleasure because it allowed me to see a much larger picture of this family's various trials and developments over a long period of time. It forced me to think about their personal history not in a linear way but in the resonance of events and how they impact different generations.
I especially appreciated how this novel depicts absences within a family like in this passage about the mother named Salima who grieves for her lost son: “Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead.” Quite often families will have members who die at quite an early age and their loss can reverberate through many years. So while the story is mostly about the immediate concerns of these very different sisters we gradually come to understand that their older brothers' presence also remains in the minds and hearts of this family. And there's a touching injustice to how people can become preoccupied with these losses rather than focusing on fostering the development of those still living.
This is such a rich and complex novel whose many layers will probably become more evident with a rereading. Yet there is so much in the immediate concerns of its characters being presented from chapter to chapter showing all their many humorous idiosyncrasies and longings that I found this first reading entirely engrossing. I was particularly gripped by the story of the bookish middle sister Asma whose marriage takes her life in an unexpected new direction. While I could connect with a lot of the sisters and their husband's concerns it was really fascinating to read about lives and a culture so different from my own. It's made me much more interested in exploring literature from other countries and I'm so glad the Man Booker International Prize has prompted me to read more translated fiction this year.