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Jokha Alharthi

Teoksen Celestial Bodies tekijä

10 teosta 666 jäsentä 30 arvostelua

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al-Harthi, Jokha



Jokha Alharthi's novel can be ranked as a stream-of-consciousness, reflecting both dreams and wishes along with her character's backstory. Written in a first person narrative style, Zuhur, an Omani woman in Britain, is attending University and finding the inevitable culture-shock difficult to cope with living there. In exploring relationships within her family (such as it was), Zuhur agonizes over the loss of the beloved, albeit adopted, grandmother, Bint Aamir, who raised her.

This chronicle of the dichotomy of recalling an ancient Middle Eastern culture while immersed in an equally strange European-Anglo-influenced society was intense reading. Much of the yearning may well resonate with any young woman feeling lonely, isolated from family, and wanting that impossible "one more chance" to let the departed know how much they were loved; to share regrets ~ always unfinished business. The story dwells rather excessively on that theme. Retellings of Zuhur's backstory, family, and upbringing abound, moving between present and past.

The novel was flawed in that a repetitive, unfocussed plot made the story rather distracting to follow. While the theme of the two cultures and the societal expectations of each was interesting, there was never a clear idea whether Zuhur wanted to embrace the Western societal norms versus cling to Omani strictures. Complexity was added by her having to keep private a confidence regarding a rebellious Pakistani girl who wanted to marry 'an unsuitable man' without the parent's knowledge. This is a book readers will have to take slowly to comprehend what the author's ultimate point is in her story.
… (lisätietoja)
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SandyAMcPherson | 7 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jun 13, 2024 |
Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, this is a short but complex book by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, set in the fictional village of al-Awafi in Oman, beginning in around 1980 and then extending into the surrounding decades and generations, both past and present. It centres around two families brought together by marriage but encompasses many characters, including the families’ slaves, friends and relatives. Three sisters Mayya, Asma and Khawla take very different paths into marriage and family. Seamstress, Mayya is forced by her family to marry Abdallah, a man she does not love. The very academic Asma marries out of a sense of duty and desire for children, hoping to find what she has read about in the ancient texts: the other half of her sphere, the part of her soul that lives in another’s body. She discovers her husband, the artist Khalid, is a sphere of himself, and their marriage becomes two separate spheres orbiting around each other rather than the fusion of two halves she had imagined. Khawla refuses the marriage her parents arrange, yearning after a man who has emigrated to Canada, and comforts herself in his absence with her mirrors and vanity. When he returns their union is not what she expects either.

The book alternates between a more traditional omniscient third person narrator and the perspective of Mayya’s husband, Abdallah, son of merchant Sulayman. Abdallah’s chapters take a stream of consciousness rambling trail that flicks rapidly between childhood, adulthood, his daughter London as a baby then suddenly as an adult working as a doctor, and is difficult to follow. He has flashbacks to a childhood incident when his father cruelly punished him, and constantly returns to his emotion around his father’s death, the mysterious death of his mother, and his guilt at not being present at the funeral of slave woman Zarifa who brought him up.

Alharthi highlights the evolution of Oman, from a traditional slave-owning society, through the years of colonialism and upheaval to a modern complex society. It is interesting how many of the superstitions and traditions are retained while other things are clearly changing as the younger generation seek love matches and their own agency. The 1920 Treaty of Sib and its implications are mentioned: the treaty between the Sultan of Muscat and the Imamate of Oman. This brought together the more secular pro-British coastal empire and the more traditional interior ruled by an Imam. The story also features the importance of poetry and folktales. Mayya’s father Azzan has a passionate affair with beautiful and independent Bedouin woman Najiyah, called the Moon. There are many references to the ancient love story of Layla and Majnun, almost a Middle Eastern version of Romeo and Juliet but far older.

I found Abdallah’s chapters hard to follow and repetitive. The many characters meant you never really engaged with any of them or felt invested in their lives. I did appreciate the insights into Oman, the beauty of the poetry, the stories of the mysterious jinn, the descriptions of eating dates and salty fish, and the cultural rituals around marriage and childbirth. I was interested in the contrasts in the women’s lives: some of them controlled by parents and husbands, shut away from the rest of the house, unable to go out without curtains on the vehicle and subject to rape and abuse. Then on the other hand there were colourful characters like Zarifa who despite her role as a slave, exercised her own power by becoming mistress to the Sulayman and running his household, and with her traditional ceremonial role due to her knowledge of the jinn and the spirit world. Bedouin woman Najiyah was also a force to be reckoned with, refusing to marry and managing her own lands and business successfully. I was also interested to learn about Oman’s involvement in the slave trade. Oman was a slave hub from the sixth century when people were captured and brought in from the East coast of Africa and distributed throughout the Arabian peninsula. It was not officially abolished until 1970 but continues in another form with the modern day practice of kafala in which domestic workers are brought into Oman and their passports taken away from them by the sponsor family who then control and often horribly abuse these women.

This was an insightful, valuable book but not an altogether engaging story. If you doubled the length of the book and halved the number of characters this could be an amazing story.
… (lisätietoja)
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mimbza | 21 muuta kirja-arvostelua | May 30, 2024 |
Translated by Marilyn Booth

I read this book because I am taking part in a MOOC - massive open online course - that is free on Future Learn written by Edinburgh University. It is called How to Read a Novel. Spread over 4 weeks with each week focusing on a different element of a novel: plot, characters, dialogue and setting and a book from the James Tait Prize shortlist. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Bitter Orange by Jokka Alharthi, Bolla by Pajtim Statovci and After Sappho Selby Wynn Schwartz.

Bitter Orange Tree is for week 2 with emphasis on characters and what we know about them. First we looked at how we know about characters - action, dialogue and description and then the omniscient narrator along with stream of conscience. This is all then applied to the book so I am going to concentrate on this element in the review.

The story revolves around the memories of a young woman who has left her country of Oman to come to a cold place to study. She has left her family behind, including her Grandmother who died just before she moved to the new country. The book shares her memories and dreams of her family as she tries to settle in a new country alongside the guilt based on how she treated her Grandmother before she died. Chapters move between the past and present, introducing new characters all who have obstacles to overcome. These obstacles show us life in Oman from after WW1 up until the present day, including the invasion of Kuwait.

At the start of the book, the characters are introduced by their hands: wrinkled and fleshy with a tough black nail, slender fingers with precisely clipped nails, hands untouched by hard work, hands rooted in the household and hands with long nails, shaped like half-crescents. It's a really interesting way of telling us something about the character, almost as a shortcut for showing their age, traits and how much work they have done. Eyes are used in the same way.

When Salman saw her, he was smitten with the look in her eyes. It was the expression of someone who had experienced everything, who knew everything, and therefore no longer took any interest in the world. It was a look both careworn and uncaring. The self-sufficiency and superiority in that look could make you dizzy.

These are the eyes of a young woman who had been married twice by the age of sixteen, the first time at nine and who had lost her baby.

During her time at University in the cold place (Edinburgh?), Zuhour made friends with Suroor, she of the precisely clipped nails, and through her, her sister Kuhl. Kuhl has fallen in love with another student, Imran, but he is not from a wealthy background and she feels her parents would not allow the relationship so she keeps it a secret. The secret becomes too big and heavy for Suroor and so she drops out of the friendship group and a triangle of Zuhour, Imran and Kuhl are left. It is at this point that Zuhour becomes an unreliable narrator, suggesting that Imran is as much in love with her as she is with him although she watches Kuhl and Imran together and talks for long hours about Kuhl's passion for Imran. This is the one snippet in the book of memories and dreams where I was left a bit disappointed, wanting to know how the situation ended. Did they tell Kuhl's parents? Did they both become doctors? Perhaps Zuhour's part in this story is more of a dream than reality.

A lot of this book is about independence and intimacy. When her Grandmother called out 'Don't leave me!' as Zuhour walked off from visiting her to go and do other things, the guilt pressed in. Once her Grandmother had died, all she wanted was more time with her. She clings to her dreams and memories in place of her Grandmother.

The book has a lot to say about the place of women in Omani and Pakistani society. At one point, Kuhl's life is likened to a kite,

In the beginning, she believed that the she had a firm hold on the cord that tethered that kite, and that she could control its movements. But the kite didn't repsond to her tugs. It flew away, eluding the pull of that thin and frail thread, which was really no more than an imaginary line. It was a kite far in the distance, hovering, circling, now ramming into a lampost, now getting caught on antenna, and finally, likely to be ripped to tatters as it chafed against a length of barbed wire. Or it might careen back to earth, but then it would surely plunge straight into the dirt.

To be so out of control of your own life was a hard obstacle to overcome. And these obstacles sometimes ended in the women no longer having the words to express themselves or in some cases being totally silent. The women find solace in religion - Zuhour's mother, unselfish love for children -Bint Aamir and her friend next door, silence - Sumayya, and death - the gypsy woman.

The character we end up knowing least about is Zuhour. Her name translates as blossom and we have no way of knowing whether the name fits her or is a contrast. She has become in the book a conduit for the other characters to appear and so her times in the cold city are not as well-drawn as they are in Oman. There is a feeling of this book being short stories that have been brought together by dreams and memories but several of the characters' stories couldn't be memories or dreams because Zuhour was not around at that time. They could be memories of conversations but aren't presented in that way.

An interesting book that needed in-depth study to find some of the more interesting nuances but not one to rave about.
… (lisätietoja)
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allthegoodbooks | 7 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Aug 15, 2023 |
As it seems to be the case for most readers, I came to this book because of the Man Booker International Prize, and for its depiction of Oman, a country I hadn't previously read a book from.

I was under the spell of this book from the beginning. Alharthi starts with three sisters as her focal point, but we get their POVs and SO many others -- suitors, husbands, neighbors, until it manages to take in so many different social classes, positions, ideologies. People embracing the social changes happening in Oman and those resisting it. Promotors of traditional values who treat women well, espousers of "modern" values who are misogynists and abusers behind closed doors.

I couldn't possibly sum up the plot or even the cast of characters. This unfolds non-linearly with flashbacks, broken memories, and dreams. Not for everyone, but I was entranced.
… (lisätietoja)
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greeniezona | 21 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Aug 2, 2023 |



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Marilyn Booth Translator
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½ 3.4

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