An exploration of social status, wealth, desire, and female agency. It presents a mosaic portrait of one young woman's attempt to understand the roots she has grown from, and to envisage an adulthood in which her own power and happiness might find the freedom necessary to bear fruit and flourish. Zuhour, an Omani student at a British university, is caught between the past and the present. As she attempts to form friendships and assimilate in Britain, she can't help but ruminate on the relationships that have been central to her life. Most prominent is her strong emotional bond with Bint Amir, a woman she always thought of as her grandmother, who passed away just after Zuhour left the Arabian Peninsula. As the historical narrative of Bint Amir's challenged circumstances unfurls in captivating fragments, so too does Zuhour's isolated and unfulfilled present, one narrative segueing into another as time slips and dreams mingle with memories.
Bitter Orange Tree offers plenty of detail about Omani life between world wars ... Evocative reading ... Committing Bint Aamir’s life to writing transforms her story into one that inspires reverence, rather than pity. Bint Aamir takes on a mythic quality...and her unchanging appearance, wearing the same garments all her life, gives her a sense of permanence amid the sudden changes in her country. In Alharthi’s world, it’s not only the future that holds promise; the past has possibility and opportunities for revision, too.
As before, the author continues to demonstrate a deep sympathy for the ways women suffer and survive the vicissitudes of a society that gives them little agency. And fans will recognize Alharthi’s fluid treatment of chronology and setting, once again gorgeously translated by Booth ... Alharthi, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh and now teaches in Oman, can simultaneously emphasize the universality of her characters’ feelings and the unique cultural context of their experiences. Bitter Orange Tree is a story of mourning and alienation, and Alharthi has developed a tone that captures that sense of being suspended in the timelessness of grief ... If Bitter Orange Tree has a weakness, it’s this emphasis on the narrator’s static grief, which may tax readers’ sympathy and then exceed their interest. But fortunately, the swirling current of the narrative pushes against the narrow confines of Zuhour’s extravagant mourning. In the undulating rhythms of this story, we’re repeatedly drawn into the early details of Bint Aamir’s life as a woman in Oman ... Aside from how emotionally painful that sounds, frozen in torment and tongue-tied in destiny are particularly challenging conditions to sustain in a novel, which demands at least a modicum of dynamic movement ... this exquisitely sensitive novel spins its wheels without going anywhere.
Alharthi keeps her reader emotionally invested in both women. She emphasizes their tight bond by switching between one character's past and the other's present and braiding together their experiences. Some of her metaphors might feel heavy-handed (a kite in the wind, that titular tree) but for the most part her novel is an elegant meditation on remembering and forgetting.