As societies change shape, novels change form. Because the novel is such a deeply mimetic and attentive host, it begins to sound like its guests. A hierarchical society that placed faith in marriage reproduced itself in stable novels that end securely in imagined marriage, gently offstage. But a society in which women were chafing at the limits of domestic harness reproduced itself in turbulent novels that begin with an inquiry into such marriages rather than ending with the promise of them. The novel of adultery, which dominates the second half of the European nineteenth century, might also be called the novel of unhappy marriage, its formal restlessness driven by the trapped restlessness of its heroines. That tragic adulterer Effi Briest, sparkling, young, and unhappily married to a dashing older aristocrat, wags a minatory finger, from late-nineteenth-century Prussia, back at Elizabeth Bennet, sparkling, young, and on the verge of her ideal marriage in early-nineteenth-century England, as if to say, “It’s much harder than you think it will be.”
The form’s remarkable adaptability is on brilliant display in “Celestial Bodies” (Catapult), a searching work of fiction by Jokha Alharthi, an Omani writer and academic; the English translation, by Marilyn Booth, won this year’s International Booker Prize. “Celestial Bodies” tells the subtle and quietly anguished story of several unhappy marriages. Though not a novel about female adultery—the narrated infidelities are all male—it shares with the genre an intense preoccupation with its female characters’ unhappy marital experience. The inequitable rules and expectations of a traditionally patriarchal Islamic society—the novel is largely set in an Omani village—bend this novel’s focus back onto the sort of marital misery that once animated the European literary tradition.
Yet one of the book’s signal triumphs is that Alharthi has constructed her own novelistic form to suit her specific mimetic requirements. Oman, a small, prosperous, oil-rich world trader, has been in a state of rapid transition since the nineteen-seventies. Ancient assumptions and modern ambitions coexist, not always harmoniously. Alharthi, who has a Ph.D. in classical Arabic literature from the University of Edinburgh and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman’s capital, Muscat, represents the fulfillment of some of those modern ambitions. She gives each chapter, in loose rotation, to the voice of a single character, and so makes contemporary female interiority crucial to her book while accommodating a variety of very different world views. The novel’s formal setup seems, at first, to establish a patriarch as the privileged star of a constellation of female celestial bodies: Abdallah speaks to us in the first person; the other characters (almost all women) are voiced in the third person. But Abdallah is desperately insecure about his masculinity, preoccupied with proving himself to the ghost of his tyrannical, recently deceased father. At the same time, the third-person narration devoted to the female characters is so flexible and sensitively alert that you often forget it’s not in the first person. So Abdallah’s formal priority turns out to be palely ex officio, while the women blaze like necessary suns.
“Celestial Bodies,” a slender novel alive with many tales, encompasses several generations, but at its heart is the story of three sisters who are disillusioned by marriage: Mayya, Asma, and Khawla. Mayya marries Abdallah, the son of a wealthy merchant; Asma marries Khalid, a self-obsessed artist for whom the ideal wife is someone who will fall “into the orbit he had marked out, who would always be there but would also always stay just outside, yet without wanting to create her own celestial sphere, her own orbit”; and Khawla, after many years of loyal patience, marries Nasir, her childhood sweetheart, whose idea of marriage involves spending most of his time in Canada with a girlfriend, returning every two years to impregnate his wife. (Nasir would turn up in Oman with fancy clothes for the children, Khawla reflects, “but never in the right sizes because he didn’t even know how old they were.”)
Tellingly, the novel begins with a woman thinking, and then with the enforced suppression of that thought. Mayya is at her Singer sewing machine, dreaming of a love unrequited. She has fallen for a young man named Ali, who has just come back from London, where he was studying. Mayya longs for the chance to catch even a glimpse of him. But her mother’s peremptory announcement shreds the dream: she tells her daughter that Abdallah has asked to marry her. The union will be advantageous. So that’s that. Mayya thinks that Allah must be punishing her for her secret desires. She marries Abdallah dutifully, lovelessly, and then she secretly punishes the world by naming her first child London (a choice that scandalizes traditionalists), for the man she actually wanted to marry.
Asma eventually makes her peace with her narcissistic husband, but only by becoming “her own constellation, independent and whole, a sphere unto itself.” That sphere is maternal: she devotes herself to the fourteen children she bears. Khawla’s marriage ends in divorce; she opens a beauty parlor in Muscat. Mayya stays married to Abdallah, but, like Asma, she retreats into an isolated and grimly defended maternity: she sleeps a great deal, and bitterly relishes the liberty of silence. When Abdallah asks her if she loves him—he has always been besotted with her—she laughs in his face. Abdallah recalls that Mayya didn’t laugh on her wedding day; she “didn’t even smile.” A generation later, their daughter London, a physician in Muscat, also divorces her husband, Ahmad, a poet who dedicates every new poem “to a new girl,” and beats his wife.
The novel moves back and forth between the generations very flexibly, often in the course of a single page or even paragraph, owing to Alharthi’s deft management of time shifts. I like to imagine Alharthi, as a graduate student in Edinburgh, encountering what Muriel Spark did with flash-forwards in her great Edinburgh novel about the often unhappy lives of girls and women, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” Each novel’s relation to time resembles a handful of unequal threads. In “Celestial Bodies,” the shortest ones represent the period that opens the book and continues through it—the new marriages of Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, a passage of only a few years, in the early nineteen-eighties. Other threads are longer, because the novel’s individual stories are narrated from the present day. Abdallah tells us his story right now: he is Mayya’s disappointed middle-aged husband. It is natural for him to slip something like this into one of his monologues, about London’s marriage: “He divorced her. We paid him the dowry and so my daughter got herself out of that marriage. . . . London, I said to her, Today you are free. You are a successful physician and you have your freedom.” But he also reaches far back into his childhood—his memories return repeatedly to a brutal punishment meted out to him by his father, when he was suspended head first over a well. Mayya’s chapters tend to start out with her as a young mother, but they will also suddenly leap ahead in time: “Twenty-three years later when she would smash her daughter’s mobile phone to bits in anger before slapping her across the face. . . .”
Here’s how two pages of this novel roam along various lifelines. In the chapter entitled “Motherhood,” we begin, conventionally enough, in Mayya’s youth. She is the new mother of London: “Just before dawn, Mayya was sitting up on her bedding, the nursing baby in her lap. Her newborn daughter had finally stopped wailing and dropped off to sleep.” A page later, Alharthi is using her very close third-person narration to inhabit Mayya’s most depressed reflections: “Mayya considered silence to be the greatest of human acts, the sum of perfection. When you were utterly quiet and still you were likeliest to hear accurately what others were saying. . . . If she said nothing, then nothing could cause her pain. Most of the time, she had nothing to say.” And then the next paragraphs do this:
Once this child of hers was much older, after Salim and Muhammad had arrived in the world as well, Mayya made another discovery: sleep. Sleep! She would sleep and sleep, and as long as she stayed asleep nothing could harm her. . . . Entering the realm of sleep meant coming into a place of no responsibilities where she felt nothing, and the things she had anxiously needed to hold on to while awake fell away. The repeated nervous twitches of Muhammad’s hands; the sounds of mortal combat and tinny shouts of victory in the video game; London’s white coat, so big it accentuated her extreme thinness. . . . Sleep was her only paradise. It was her ultimate weapon against the pounding anxiety of her existence.
Now, sitting up on her bedding, Mayya heard the muezzin’s voice. She found it comforting in the dawn silence.
In just a few sentences, we have travelled forward, to take in two later children and London’s adult work (that reference to her white coat), but then we return to the young mother sitting on her bed with a newborn daughter. Within all the chapters, the stories float like this, lightly tethered to what the French call récit—the moment in which the story is being told, the narrative present. The result is a beautifully wavering, always mobile set of temporalities, the way starlight seems to flicker when we gaze at distant and nearer celestial bodies. But the procedure is more radical than Muriel Spark’s, because the tether itself is moving: it is not clear what or where the continuing “present” of the novel really is—Mayya as the new mother of London, or London as an adult physician?
Faulkner used rotating narrators in “As I Lay Dying,” but his first-person monologues, in contrast to Alharthi’s third-person monologues, commit the novel to a tight temporal focus—the story of a death, a short journey, a burial. “Celestial Bodies,” written from within a largely poetic tradition by a woman who is a scholar of classical Arabic poetry, seems to break free of narration as it is commonly understood in Western fictional literature. The leaps and swerves seem closer to poetry or fable or song than to the novel as such.
Still, these poetic movements serve decidedly novelistic ends. Alharthi’s perspectivism, a cycle of distinct and often isolated voices, naturally enacts the ways in which, even within a generation, people can hold very different levels of comprehension and knowledge. At one moment, London dismissively asks her mother, “What do you really know about love? . . . From the very first day you opened your eyes on life, you never saw anyone, until you saw my father. How old were you when they married you to him?” It’s the inevitable clash of older and younger generations, older and newer ideas of marriage. Because the novel began with the intimate revelation of Mayya’s secret yearning, though, we understand both the poignancy and the partiality of London’s comprehension. The question gets turned back on London by the novel’s form: What does London really know about love?
Moreover, we learn of this exchange only through Abdallah, who tells us, “She thought I was out of the house at the time but I was there and I heard these things.” As a frustrated husband, he is interested only in the fact that his wife laughs in reply and says nothing; it seems like a verdict on their marriage. But, like London, he lacks our access to his wife’s soul. So the same question arises: What does Abdallah really know about love? Three characters—father, mother, and daughter—each interpret the daughter’s original query differently.
A novel loosely holding together distinct histories and temporalities effectively dramatizes a society that is a congeries of ancient and new, old lore and tradition bumping up against thoroughly modern ambitions and expertise. For example, Asma is known as the bookish sister, the one who wants an education. Compared with her mother, or with Mayya and Khawla, she is indeed learned. But compared with London, her niece, her learning is scriptural, almost archaic, the product of a girl’s traditional confinement. Asma urges her mother to make a concoction for Mayya recommended in a book called “Fruit for the Wayfarer,” and backs up her contention that dates are good for nursing mothers by citing a moment in the Quran when “Our Lady Maryam shook the palm tree and the dates fell down on her.” Later in the book, London asks her father why people say that her grandmother died bewitched. That’s how they explain any inexplicable death, Abdallah replies. London thinks she can come up with a more scientific answer. To her, the symptoms sound like poisoning.
In this always shifting book, society’s unfinished transitions are never far from sight, briefly glimpsed when a curtain of narrative blows loose. Most of these characters move their familial homes from their rural birthplace to the capital. One character denounces “those horrid new-fangled heretical air-conditioners” that start appearing in the nineteen-eighties. Abdallah, trying to remember his mother, who died young, wishes that cameras had reached his small home town before she died. When he was a boy, he recalls, he was the son of only the second car owner in the whole town. The father of the young woman who will grow up to be a physician remembers how his own father—in a rare moment of tenderness—would heal his headaches, placing his hand on the boy’s head, and repeating words from the Quran: “To Him belongs everything that rests quietly, in the night as by day.”
Patriarchy’s violent edges also slice at these narratives. At one moment, Ahmad, London’s husband, promises her that she will be the wife of the greatest poet in Oman; at another, he whines, “I didn’t mean to hit you. I was just angry. . . . I don’t want to lose you, and anyway, you are my property, my London. You are my victory and my inspiration.” In a stroke, eight decades or more of family history—and, more significant, several generations of female journeying—are buried in the oldest rubble.
There’s plenty of rubble around. We gradually learn that Abdallah’s father, the wealthy Merchant Sulayman, made his fortune not from selling dates, his daily work, but from the slave trade. One of the liveliest characters in the novel is the most ambiguous in status, a woman named Zarifa, a slave who became Sulayman’s mistress and who largely raised Abdallah, after his mother’s early death. Born to a woman owned by the local sheikh, Zarifa was sold to Merchant Sulayman at the age of sixteen. Forceful, large, illiterate, an inveterate quoter of proverbs and traditional wisdom, she can come and go as she pleases among higher-born women, protected by Sulayman’s favor. Unlike the other characters, whose reflections move back and forth across generations, Zarifa knows little about her past, and doesn’t much choose to learn more. Alharthi tells us that Zarifa’s forebears were kidnapped from Kenya, via Zanzibar, by pirates in the late nineteenth century, when wealthy Omanis were craftily evading the pact that the Sultan had made with the British to outlaw the slave trade. But she shares with the more privileged women her own struggles with modernity. Her son, Sanjar, upbraids her for living in the servile past: “Open your eyes. The world has changed. . . . While everybody’s gotten educated and gotten jobs, you’ve stayed exactly where you always were, the slave of Merchant Sulayman. . . . We are free, and everyone is his own master, and no one owns anyone else. I am free and I can travel wherever and whenever I like.” He makes good on his promise, and, when grown up and with children of his own, he leaves Oman for Kuwait. Zarifa travels there to get him to change his mind but returns empty-handed, denouncing “the viper whom her son had married.”
There’s a paradoxical combination, here, of mobility and stasis. As in more conventional multigenerational sagas, one sees historical progress measured in freedoms won, prejudices softened, traditions modified. As a largely rural society is urbanized, as people begin to travel not just within the country but internationally, as women are better educated, so the younger generations can seize previously unimaginable opportunities: Sanjar moves to Kuwait; London becomes a doctor; Abdallah spends a good deal of his life flying from one place to another. Curiously, despite the greater freedoms afforded the men, they seem more immobilized, trapped, clutched by the hand of the past. Nasir spends half his married life in Canada, but his treatment of his wife appears little different from the rights invoked by London’s husband, Ahmad (“you are my property”). It seems a deliberate irony on Alharthi’s part that Abdallah, the only male character granted his own chapters, delivers many of his monologues from a plane. While he rushes forward across the globe, his thoughts revert helplessly to his cruel father, to old patriarchal punishments and curses, to his impacted masculinity and his emotional imprisonment as a husband. One effect of devoting so much space to intensely realized female interiority is to render the women vividly dynamic and mobile—restless, yearning, ambitious—even when reactionary or just maternally sedentary.
The form speaks eloquently. Indeed, the great pleasure of reading “Celestial Bodies” is witnessing a novel argue, through the achieved perfection of its form, for a kind of inquiry that only the novel can really conduct. The ability to move freely through time, the privileged access to the wounded privacies of many characters, the striking diversity of human beings across a relatively narrow canvas, the shock waves as one generation heaves, like tectonic plates, against another, the secrets and lapses and repressions, at once intimate and historical, the power, indeed, of an investigation that is always political and always intimate—here is the novel being supremely itself, proving itself up to the job by changing not its terms of employment but the shape of the task. ♦