The [novel] form’s remarkable adaptability is on brilliant display in Celestial Bodies (Catapult), a searching work of fiction ... one of the book’s signal triumphs is that Alharthi has constructed her own novelistic form to suit her specific mimetic requirements ... 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 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 ... 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 ... Celestial Bodies...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 ... 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 novel is a beautifully achieved account of lives pulling at the edges of change ... The writing is teasingly elliptical throughout and there is a kind of poetic understatement that draws the reader into the domestic settings and public tribulations of the three sisters ... Celestial Bodies deftly undermines recurrent stereotypes about Arab language and cultures but most importantly brings a distinctive and important new voice to world literature.
... a rich, dense web of a novel ... The structure of Celestial Bodies might be described as labyrinthine, with characters retracing similar paths again and again, retelling old stories from changed perspectives or revisiting past wrongs after acquiring new information. There are dark secrets at the heart of the labyrinth, but the point of the novel is not necessarily to find one’s way to them—much about the plot ultimately remains cryptic. Instead, Alharthi constructs a tapestry of interlocking lives, some seen over the course of decades, others at just a single pungent moment. Rarely have I encountered a work of fiction in which form and idea were so inseparably, and appropriately, fused ... With the sparest of transitions, Celestial Bodies jumps nimbly between generations ... Marilyn Booth, the translator, has done a wonderful job of conveying a lyricism I can only assume is present in Alharthi’s original ... The extended cast of characters and the nonlinear plot can make Celestial Bodies challenging to follow, and the confusingly drawn family tree at the start doesn’t offer much help. Plot strands are begun, dropped, and picked up again. Stories are told in different ways by different people, who may have incomplete or incorrect information. The fluidity of the style at times resembles stream of consciousness ... The chorus of voices that arises from these pages, at once harmonious and dissonant, constitutes nothing less than the assertion of the right to exist and to be recognized.
... it can be challenging to keep tabs on all the characters, absorbing their fears and hopes, before jumping to the next chapter 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 credit extending to Marilyn Booth, the translator, who spins exquisite English descriptions from Alharthi’s original Arabic ... reveals an expansive view of a culture that most of us in the West know nothing about ... The book is full of strong women characters. Alharthi, though, avoids clichés 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 discovered in everyday occurences, an experience that readers everywhere will recognize.
The book scorns romanticised history and happily-ever-afters. Individual characters are often taunted when they use romance as a way of understanding the world ... Celestial Bodies never actually gets to the 'ever after.' Instead, it continually re-evaluates both present and past. And while the book doesn’t tell us how things turn out, it skillfully builds suspense by creating 'Aha!' moments as characters come to better understand their pasts ... The translation does not coddle the reader who may be afraid of foreign words. Booth embroiders the text with the sound of Arabic wherever possible, maintaining rhythm and even rhyme, as well as the crackle and pop of the book’s humour. Celestial Bodies is not a straightforward book, but readers who can leap nimbly into its stream will certainly find themselves carried away.
...it’s harder to make out these themes in the novel itself, perhaps because of the complex structure. The narrative alternates between a third-person viewpoint and the first-person voice of Abdallah ... The stories of many others are woven in, making the shape of the book more a tangled skein than a linear progression ... While there are some frustrations for the reader to overcome, the glimpses into a culture relatively little known in the west are fascinating.
Celestial Bodies delivers a cornucopia, the drama tasty whether it concerns a long day of overwrought celebration, scented with incense and envy, or a midnight tryst in the desert, mixing torment and ecstasy. Juggling multiple perspectives, eschewing straightforward chronology, the narrative coheres nevertheless ... Overall, as in some sprawling canvas by Brueghel, tragedy strikes a balance with better, and both outcomes bear out Khalid’s discovery: the shocking power of old-country ties, buried but bristling with life.
Brueghel however makes a less illuminating comparison than Alharthi’s contemporary Elena Ferrante. Both women explore tensions expressed in the best title of the Neapolitan Quartet ... An extraordinary range of female sensibility, from sisterhood to sheer hate, enlivens the narrative throughout, and Alharthi’s frankness about her women’s uglier moments in no way lessens her profound sympathy for how their status remains, under the Omani monarchy, second-class. Their subjugation triggers fascinating strategies in each of the three sister protagonists ... A novel with the sock of Celestial Bodies puts a reader face to face with the complex humanity everywhere—even in the lower depths, the shithole countries.
Complex and challenging, Alharthi’s novel is less interested in chasing happily ever afters than in exploring Oman’s history of slavery, its cultural and class dynamics and the power of its women within a shifting but resolute patriarchy ... Readers will have to work to assemble a cohesive portrait from the beautifully rendered puzzle pieces that Alharthi has scattered before them, but their efforts will be rewarded with a deeply immersive and enlightening reading experience ... The fragmented narrative and lack of obvious plot will not be for everyone, but the novel’s structure emphasizes the immutable passage of time and the changes that have transformed Oman over the last century. These changes are as unsettling for some of the characters as they are for the reader ... We read some books in order to peek into cultures and lives other than our own; others we read to better understand ourselves. Fascinating in its depiction of Oman and its intricacies, yet generous and sweeping in its humanity, Celestial Bodies offers its readers the rare opportunity to do both.
I worry that I was transfixed because I could not be sure that I was not Orientalising this woman in the pangs of her literary childbirth ... This novel uses many varied voices and tones and some of them ring true and the others... sorry, I’m doing it again. I don’t know how an Omani businessman might speak inside his head especially when he is caught between the past and the present, wavering between love and tradition, transiting between Europe and the Gulf, switching his tongue between English and Arabic. He asks his wife, do you love me, and I went back to Fiddler on the Roof. His wife takes a cinematic route too: Have the Egyptian films eaten your mind? ... This is where I give up and say: I have been defeated by my own ignorance. But it is an interesting defeat. I was wondering what exactly I would be entitled by my knowledge to write upon and found that I ended up in a small solipsism called Jerry Pinto.
The great strength of the novel lies in the ways this change is shown not as a steady progression from old to new but as a far more complicated series of small-scale transitions ... A richly layered, ambitious work that teems with human struggles and contradictions, providing fascinating insight into Omani history and society.
... ambitious, intense ... With exhilarating results, Alharthi throws the reader into the midst of a tangled family drama in which unrequited love, murder, suicide, and adultery seem the rule rather than the exception ... The scenes establish the remarkable contrasts among the generations, whose members are united primarily by a fierce search for romantic love ... The novel rewards readers willing to assemble the pieces of Alharthi’s puzzle into a whole, and is all the more satisfying for the complexity of its tale.