Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, Celestial Bodies is set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman. We encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved. These three women and their families witness their home evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society to the crossroads of its complex present.
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.