Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi’s second novel, used four generations of a family in the Gulf state of Oman to gauge breakneck social transformations after the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Published in Arabic in 2010 (a chapter first appeared in English in Banipal magazine the following year), Celestial Bodies won the Omani writer and her translator Marilyn Booth il 2019 International Booker prize. Through the vexed marriages of three sisters related to a slave trader, it explored liberty, patriarchy, and social control over both women and men. It included intriguing glimmers of Omani history, from Bedouin freedoms and anti-colonial insurgence to Indian Ocean trade and modern enslavement – outlawed only in 1970.
Bitter Orange Tree, Alharthi’s third novel, is her second to appear in English and is also translated by Booth. Aided by Booth’s deft touch, some parts affirm the author’s talent for lyrical shifts between past and present, memory and folklore, oneiric surrealism and grimy realism. Yet structural flaws and an overambitious global reach make for a patchy read.
The narrator, Zuhour, is an Omani student in a snowy British city (Alharthi studied at Edinburgh), who is pitched into gloom by guilt-laden grief over an adoptive grandmother, who died soon after she left, and an unhappy elder sister she has left behind. Isolated in an alien tongue, or as she awkwardly expresses it, “bound to a wheelchair that was language’s incapacity to fully express me”, she fears turning into her mother, whose postnatal depression was never dispelled.
Zuhour retraces the bonds to her homeland, reimagining the life of Bint Aamir, a distant poor relation who cared for Zuhour’s father, and later his children. In the most engaging passages, this grandmother’s spirit, with her scent of “civet musk, precious aloeswood oil, and ancient soil”, emerges in vivid anecdotes. Rebuffing a predatory shopkeeper’s advances, she is a girl with one unsighted eye who toils with the charcoal-makers. She saves up for a fruitless trip on a Bedford truck to consult a missionary doctor, at a time when villagers needed the colonial governor’s permission to venture to Muscat.
Through Bint Aamir’s expulsion from her father’s home, and her thwarted dreams of owning an orchard, the novel evokes a history of hunger and sickness after the world wars, when wells dried up and villages emptied. The devastating toll of emigration – a theme shared with Cities of Salt (1984-89), the trenchantly satirical cycle of novels on the rise of an oil-rich desert kingdom by the late Saudi-Jordanian writer Abdelrahman Munif – is here exemplified by Shaykha, a neighbour with dementia who trudges half-naked through the narrow lanes searching for a son who departed 40 anni prima.
Zuhour’s spooling memories of Oman are interspersed with new student friendships, with the vegan American Christine and two Pakistani sisters. Suroor, with “jet-black hair rippling down her back and a dazzling smile”, was “born in her father’s luxurious villa in Karachi, speaking nothing but English all of her carefree life”. Failing to rise above cliche, her privilege and snobbery are deployed as a crude foil to Bint Aamir’s deprivation. Suroor’s sister Kuhl and Kuhl’s lover Imran, a Pakistani peasant turned scholarship boy whom her family would deem unsuitable, furnish the central plot. When the couple contract a secret mutaa marriage – a temporary liaison deployed more subversively in Hanan al-Shaykh’s 2018 novel The Occasional Virgin – Zuhour’s interest grows, signposting an incipient love triangle.
The narrator’s claim to know Imran better than his lover by virtue of her own vicarious acquaintance with poverty – “my grandmother would have given anything to be a peasant farmer” – is never challenged or qualified. Rather, Zuhour, who “made the imaginary my life”, assumes an authorial omniscience. When she comments on the lovers’ disparate backgrounds that “the weave of his trousers was not spun along with the weave of her skirt, and so it all unravelled”, the distance between author and narrator dissolves, e con esso, the tension in the plot.
A volte, the narrator’s projected emotions risk obscuring their object. The tale of Bint Aamir’s lost suitor is eloquent enough. But a chapter entitled “The Virgin” risks sentimentalising the putative tragic spinster, who “left the world as she lived it … without a beloved to hold her close … and never having had children who came out of her own body”. Kuhl’s mother, a Londoner with frustrated ambitions in the theatre, reluctantly accepted the “sanctified status of mother” to gain authority in her husband’s family. Yet overwrought prose reinforces conventional attitudes to womanhood questioned elsewhere.
The global allusions are as unconvincing. Imran is said, vaguely, to return to his “village without a name in his Pakistani hinterland”. Zuhour imagines the “child he had been. Barefoot and hungry, coming out of his mud-brick home at dawn.” When an Omani moves to “the Congo”, his “tiger-hunting expeditions” in the Congolese rainforest might be construed as myth in their misapprehension of African fauna.
Zuhour’s “agony of regret and remorse” over Bint Aamir is compounded by sorrow at the fate of her own sister, Sumayya, a “dynamo” stilled by a brutal husband. Ancora, like several other episodes in this uneven novel, Sumayya’s numb revenge at an Omani beauty spot appears to be a fine short story poorly integrated into the whole.