“Celestial Bodies” takes place in Oman and is a story of family life, love and change. The story revolves around three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla, and their families past and future.
Mayya is a seamstress, quiet and secretly in love with Ali bin Khallaf, when Abdallah, the son of Merchant Sulayman asks for her hand. The family accepts on her behalf and she is married. Mayya and Abdallah have three children together, London, Muhammed and Salim. Throughout the book we learn that Salim is a handful and that Muhammed is autistic. London becomes a doctor and has romantic issues that are painful for everyone. Abdallah loves Mayya but when he asks her if she loves him she just laughs.
Abdallah’s father, Merchant Sulayman, is a wealthy and difficult man. Merchant Sulayman became wealthy in what many believed was the date trade, but in fact was mostly the result of trading slaves. His wife, Abdallah’s mother, died under mysterious circumstances and Abdallah was raised by Merchant Sulayman’s slave and mistress, Zarifa. As Abdallah tells us about his life, he reflects on the cruelty of Sulayman to him and to others. Certain of those cruelties continue to haunt Abdallah. Years after Merchant Sulayman’s death, Abdallah is still trying to please him.
The book alternates its focus on different characters. The Abdallah chapters are written in a different typeset and are the only paragraphs written in first person. The other chapters are told by an unknown narrator.
Asma also marries a man who requests her hand and has 14 children by the age of 45. Hers is a life of happiness and learning. Her husband’s brother requests Khawla’s hand, but she refuses, waiting for the love of her life, Nasir, who is living in Canada. He returns and marries her but is unreliable. After many years, things are not quite working out the way she would like.
Mayya, Asma and Khawla’s parents, Azzan and Salima, have a fraught marriage. We learn that the marriage was forced on Salima and that Azzan has taken up with a Bedouin woman in the desert.
The book is complex, in theme, character and meaning. Portions of the book delve into the history of Oman, class related issues, traditions and their evolution and superstition. The stories themselves about each person’s life are interesting, thoughtful and believably developed. The novel is translated from Arabic, won the 2019 Booker Prize and is definitely worth a read. You can reserve Celestial Bodies at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.