The Christian Science Monitor Weekly

January 20, 2020

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BOOKS THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR WEEKLY | JANUARY 20, 2020 43 Weekly Edition Editor Owen Thomas Deputy Weekly Edition Editor, Books Editor April Austin Cover Story Editor Scott Armstrong Daily Edition Editor Yvonne Zipp Deputy Daily Edition Editor Noelle Swan Senior Editors Arthur Bright, Kim Campbell, Judy Douglass, Molly Jackson, Ken Kaplan, Liz Marlantes, Mark Trumbull Staff Editors Husna Haq, Sarah Matusek, Anna Tarnow, Angela Wang Intern Editor Kendra Nordin Beato Staff Writers and Correspondents Laurent Belsie, Eva Botkin-Kowacki, Ryan Lenora Brown, Harry Bruinius, Christa Case Bryant, Lenora Chu, Whitney Eulich, Linda Feldmann, Peter Ford, Henry Gass, Peter Grier, Story Hinckley, Stephen Humphries, Patrik Jonsson, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, Francine Kiefer, Martin Kuz, Howard LaFranchi, Sara Miller Llana, Taylor Luck, Jessica Mendoza, Simon Montlake, Eoin O'Carroll, Amanda Paulson, Scott Peterson, Dominique Soguel, Ann Scott Tyson, Fred Weir Copy Desk Editor Casey Fedde Deputy Copy Desk Editor Erin McNeill Managing Editor, Design Julie Fallon Director of Photography Alfredo Sosa Staff Photographers Melanie Stetson Freeman Ann Hermes Operations Manager Lily Mui Director, Graphics and Multimedia Jacob Turcotte Graphic Designer/Illustrator Karen Norris Digital Story Team Leader Samantha Laine Perfas New Storytelling/Engagement Editor Rebecca Asoulin Multimedia Producer Jingnan Peng Editor Mark Sappenfield Managing Editor Amelia Newcomb Chief Editorial Writer Clayton Jones Director of Editorial Innovation Clay Collins Audience Engagement Editor David C. Scott By Joan Gaylord / Correspondent J okha Alharthi can claim several firsts with her book "Celestial Bod- ies." Hers is the first book in Arabic to be awarded the Man Booker Internation- al Prize for fiction, in 2019. It is also the first novel written by an Omani woman to be translated into English. And for many readers, her book offers the first glimpse into everyday domestic life in the rapidly changing nation of Oman. The novel explores the experiences of three generations of two families, beginning in the early 20th century and extending to contemporary times, an era of extraordi- nary social and geopolitical change. While the country evolves from a closed nation under the sultan's rule to a modern state that boasts luxury fashion malls, both the men and women of Oman wrestle with the ramifications of these changes. At the center of the story are three sis- ters. Mayya, nursing a broken heart, mar- ries into a rich Omani family. Asma mar- ries out of a sense of duty. Khawla digs in her heels and waits for the man she loves, which is complicated as he has emigrated from Oman to Canada. Each grapples with her life choices, balancing tradition with the emerging freedoms of Omani culture. Their experiences offer three perspectives on these changes, and illustrate how indi- vidual decisions, collectively, help propel the country forward. Though focused on the three sisters, the book explores the broad picture of domes- tic life in the Middle East, including rich details of traditional customs. It would be a mistake, however, to call this a "domestic narrative." Its structure could more accu- rately be described as a puzzle with each brief chapter providing a fragment of the picture. Looking both backward and for- ward, with no single event driving the storyline, Alharthi leaves it to the reader to assemble the tale from the nuggets she provides. Yes, it can be challenging to keep tabs on all the characters, absorbing their fears and hopes, before jumping to the next chap- ter after only a few pages. While the book does provide a family tree, the author does not spoon- feed the tale. But the effort is worth it. The story is beautifully told with cred- it extending to Marilyn Booth, the translator, who spins exquisite English descriptions from Al- harthi's original Arabic. Set in the village of al-Awafi, just outside the capital city of Muscat, the story reveals an expansive view of a cul- ture that most of us in the West know little about. It charts the experiences of everyone from the poorest servants to the wealthiest merchants. Alharthi also reveals that things aren't always how they appear; for example, wom- en wield remarkable power when tradition- al social mores dictate that they have none. Most of the story is told by a third-person observer with one notable exception: Ab- dallah, a merchant's son and Mayya's hus- band, tells his own tale. Even the typeface of these chapters is different. Perhaps this is a subtle nod to patriarchy? But maybe not, since by choosing his own words, Abdallah reveals his vulnerability as he struggles with memories of his abusive father as well as his fears that his wife does not really love him. But Abdallah is also the one who exercises his strength when he learns of his daughter's fraught domestic situation. He supports her through a divorce, which enables her to pursue a professional career, a choice de- nied to women of earlier gener- ations. His daughter represents the future. Sweeping cultural change, after all, sometimes comes from incremental personal decisions. The book is full of strong women char- acters. Alharthi, though, avoids clich├ęs and stereotypes. The women do not buck the patriarchy in a predictable fashion. Rather, Alharthi reveals the nuances within domestic life, especially the possibilities to be discov- ered in everyday occurrences, an experience that readers everywhere will recognize. r Jokha Alharthi unfolds the tremendous stresses on the culture. Omani novelist exposes cracks in the patriarchy CELESTIAL BODIES By Jokha Alharthi Catapult 243 pp. FICTION

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