Celestial Bodies

Jokha Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth

Sandstone Press, £8.99

At the very moment that the mother of one of the main characters in Celestial Bodies is giving birth, slavery was abolished in Oman. It was 1926, and while political leaders met in Geneva to outlaw a trade that had oppressed much of the population and made many Omanis rich, a slave goes into labour and delivers her own child. "It was Ankabuta's fifteenth birthday, but she was as unaware of that as she was that the world held a place called Geneva."

This landscape is the stage on which Jokha Alharthi's second novel takes place. An ambitious, sweeping, highly assured piece of fiction, in which the early 20th century jostles with the present day, Celestial Bodies is already critically acclaimed in the Middle East.

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Here the author is little known, but after winning the Man Booker International Prize earlier this week, that may alter.  The first novel by an Omani woman to be published in English, its confidence and elan show how much we are missing, cut off from swathes of the Arab world by a cultural gulf that diminishes our understanding of this rapidly modernising region.

A literal translation of the original title is "Ladies of the Moon", which hints at the lyricism and spiritual yearning the story offers. Among a cast of dozens, whose cameo appearances, across the space of nearly 100 years, are dizzying, the ladies on whom Alharthi concentrates are three sisters. The Chekhovian overtones are apt, as Alharthi outlines their dreams and aspirations. Born into the class that once owned slaves, they attempt to navigate their way into the future, despite being shackled still by the unspoken but powerful bonds of the past. Mayya, the eldest, reluctantly marries the son of a merchant. Soon, she retreats into motherhood and sleep, barely speaking to her husband Abdullah. Her only obvious act of rebellion, however, is in calling her first-born daughter London, to the family's horror.

Her husband, unloved Abdullah, is the only man given his own voice in this kaleidoscopic tale. This portrait of a teeming community is described from so many perspectives the effect is by turn confusing and breathtaking. Abdullah's rumination on his marriage, his brutal father, and his mysteriously disappearing mother, is a commentary of loss, fear, and sorrow. It is to him that the final scene is given, so sparingly recounted its effect is like a gunshot in the night.

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Mayya's sisters fare better and worse. Asma, desperate for an education, finds independence and happiness of a sort with an artist. The youngest, Khawla, is not so fortunate. When her betrothed departs for Canada, she waits devotedly for years. Eventually he settles down with her, but by then love and trust have been irretrievably broken.

Despite this catalogue of marriages, Celestial Bodies is no romance. Desire, sensuality and frustration are piquantly evoked, but as with Jane Austen, in this society marriage is a political and economic act, whose consequences directly affect the wider family and community.

Alongside Alharthi's barbed observations there are flashes of humour. As Abdullah and Mayya's daughter London becomes a doctor, she strives to find her place in this ever-shifting world. She has fallen for a self-styled poet, and Alharthi mercilessly mocks this faithless fellow, who attitudes hark back to another era: "I want ... a woman who knows perfectly well that I am the wind and she is the tree. She sends her roots into the ground, I circle overhead in the sky."

Reeling in readers slowly, Alharthi is adept at the sudden reveal. It can take chapters before we learn the fate of individuals whose far-distant lives have irrevocably shaped those of today. By seamlessly entwining bygone times with the present, she makes the transition this intensely stratified society is experiencing all the more jarring. In her hands, the edges are artistically blurred, leaving us less with a history lesson, and more with a chorus of voices who demand, and deserve, to be heard. It might have been with all of them in mind that one of Chekhov's three sisters says, "our sufferings will turn into joy for those who live after us".