Monday, August 5, 2019

WITMonth Day 5 | Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi | Review

Jokha Alharthi's Man Booker International winner Celestial Bodies (tr. Marilyn Booth) is an odd and special book, made odder by my own expectations of it. Not that these expectations came out of nowhere - this is another example of a book with a thoroughly misleading book cover blurb and marketing effort from almost all readers. From the marketing, the book casts itself as the story of three sisters whose love lives reflect societal changes in Oman over the 20th century. It's quite simple/standard, isn't it?

As interesting a summary as that may be, it sorely undersells the modernist, vaguely experimental, extremely nonlinear techniques that Celestial Bodies utilizes to tell its story. Little about this book is particularly standard, nor does it play to reader expectations all that much, despite how the marketing may spin it. (And what I've found fascinating is also how many other readers seem to have embraced this interpretation of the text, even though the book is... really not that.)

I've struggled to write my own summary of Celestial Bodies that doesn't feel similarly inaccurate. Is this truly a cultural history, or is it simply a story that encompasses within it 2-3 generations? Does describing societal changes really make it a book about society? Is it a family epic simply because it is largely focused on one family (and its offshoots)? None of the traditional phrases used to describe books feel entirely right. The best I could come up with was "a story told in a nonlinear style, tracking deep emotional divides of its characters". Ah yes, that's helpful! (Not.)

Part of the problem is that Celestial Bodies just doesn't follow the traditional, expected norms of "first woman writer from [insert country] to be translated into English"... which of course is not its fault at all. We've (wrongly) grown to assume that "firsts" serve as encompassing cultural introductions, plus the very concept of "first"s is fraught with issues. While Celestial Bodies can certainly teach quite a bit and sell itself on that front, that's just not what it's doing on a literary level. The story isn't straight-forward and designed to be easy reading; it switches narrators, perspective, and focus easily and quickly. Moreover, its nonlinear storytelling plays with memory and perspective in ways that constantly challenge the reader. The book feels thoroughly modernist in parts, with its contrast between the very structured narration of some characters versus the loose style of others. It's a novel that feels like it carries within it so much more than appears on the surface, even as it remains accessible to most readers. Thus it emerges an odd novel for its simultaneously standard story (, but really... is it, though?) and its very non-standard storytelling style.

From a plot/story perspective, Celestial Bodies doesn't have all that much. It's not the sort of book that will leave you feeling wholly satisfied upon its ending. The story feels more like layers peeling back than anything direct. It's also very imbalanced in terms of characters and narration; not all characters are equal in the novel. And to take it a step further, it turns out the story is less women-focused than its framing suggests. The stories are heavily reliant on each other and feed into each other in unique ways in terms of character interactions, but the most consistent narrator turns out to be Abdallah (the second narrator in the book, who even gets his own font in the Sandstone Press edition), with a loose, out-of-time story that seems to connect most of the other stories. So there's another point against the marketing.

On top of that, the three sisters touted as the main characters? We don't actually get to know all three to the same degree. We end up learning far more about the oldest, Mayya, than either Asma or Khawla; Khawla in particular is relegated to the margins of the story and never develops into her own whole character. Asma's story begins fairly strongly, but essentially gets cut off the moment she starts to have children, effectively finishing within the space of a few lines and never getting full closure. It was a startling decision - clever, perhaps from a storytelling perspective, but ultimately disconcerting.

These all added to the odd feeling that the book left me with. Nonlinear... sure. I liked that. But the fact that some characters get totally rushed conclusions (or have sidelined arcs to begin with) left me fairly cold. It's hard to feel for a character that just exists in the background. Unfortunately, Celestial Bodies occasionally feels like it wants to be more far-reaching than it is, as such forgetting the characters that it already has. It sprawls in a way that seems more suited to a book three times its size, on the one hand making me want more and technically appreciating the novel, and on the other hand... deeply frustrating me.

But there's a lot more to Celestial Bodies. Again, to counter some of the marketing, while it very much exists in the context of Oman's history and cultural shifts, it's not really about that. It's not written to exoticize or perform changes in Oman's society, they simply are. (Which is a nice change from many Western perspectives on "exotic"/unfamiliar countries and goodness do I dislike those sorts of stories...) This means that on the one hand, the book doesn't explain a lot of background/context (and shouldn't have to!), but on the other hand... it also feels like there are nuances I will never quite understand. Which is definitely neither a point against the book nor in favor of it, simply an observation.

Which leaves me with this review. I realize that until now, I have mostly focused on the things that bothered me. This review sounds like I didn't like the book, and that's really not the case - I enjoyed Celestial Bodies overall, found it interesting, and can easily recommend it to a lot of readers. That said. false advertising is obviously not the fault of the novel itself, but it's hard to shake off the effect that it had on my reading. I actually liked a lot about the book, whether the unique style, the way it challenged my expectations, its intelligence, and its clear-sighted approach to writing about cultural changes. I also liked many of the characters and the way that the story felt like it flowed between them. And yet I came away from the book feeling somewhat... cheated is maybe too strong a word, but I'm not sure what else works. Again, it's not the novel's fault, but I came into the story with certain expectations (from the publishers and marketing, specifically) that were not met. And within the novel itself, I felt like there just wasn't enough - at just under 250 pages, this isn't a particularly long book. It left me wanting more, both in terms of those underdeveloped characters and in terms of fully understanding how the stories that did exist fit together.

Wanting more isn't necessarily a bad thing. Here, it mostly washed for me: I was already somewhat dissatisfied by the framing, which meant that I was ready to be disappointed by something else. Ultimately, I wish I could read Celestial Bodies again with fresh eyes. I wish I could erase the perception that the misleading back cover blurb instilled in me and just enjoy the book for it is - a clever, intelligent story that does a lot of brilliant work within its pages. It doesn't have to be more than that. For most readers, the experience was just those positives and I totally understand that. I find myself maybe a little cooler on the book itself than some other readers, but also able to give a warm recommendation: This is very much a book worth reading. But it might help to know what you're (not) getting.

1 comment:

  1. I want to thank you for this review. The marketing around this book had put me off, but your different perspective has intrigued me. I might read it after all!


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