The second novel by Omani author Jokhar Alharthi, Sayyidat al-Qamar, is translated into English by Marilyn Booth as Celestial Bodies.
Which are what? The men around whom the world revolves? That would be the answer one might expect from an Arabic family saga. Are the women ‘only’ mothers, daughters, and wives?
But the men in this book would make the earth move too, for their women. This father-and-distraught-daughter-in-the-car scene could come from much further north and west, much more recently than you think.
It would spoil the story to say what father and daughter decide to do. Who decides? How do they decide? Are the celestial bodies stars and planets, to whom sacrifices must still be made? This is a world in which the old traditions have not died, yet.
Are the celestial bodies the women who make those sacrifices, and so many more? This tale goes back many generations, but things changed much more recently than you think. And not just in the south and east.
Yet the women in this story demand those sacrifices be made to them, too.
She is the moon, herself. And she knows what, whom, she wants. The original title of the book means “the Ladies of the Moon”, after all.
The Man Booker International Prize 2019 will have got more people reading this Omani saga than would ever have happened otherwise. There are many good reasons to be critical of literary prizes, not least the split Booker last year and the Nobel in crisis the year before that. But this one does what such awards do at their best; take many new readers into a world they may never have entered otherwise. My book club finally got around to Celestial Bodies recently, and it was worth the wait to read it together. If you haven’t got your hands on this book yet, now is the time.