Jokha Alharthi has become the first Arabic author to win the Man Booker International Prize with her story of Oman’s rapid transformation told through the prism of one family.
The author of Celestial Bodies, the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English, shares the £50,000 prize with her translator Marilyn Booth.
Celestial Bodies is “a book to win over the head and the heart in equal measure, worth lingering over”, said historian Bettany Hughes, chair of the judges. “Interweaving voices and timelines are beautifully served by the pacing of the novel. Its delicate artistry draws us into a richly imagined community – opening out to tackle profound questions of time and mortality and disturbing aspects of our shared history.
“The style is a metaphor for the subject, subtly resisting cliches of race, slavery and gender. The translation is precise and lyrical, weaving in the cadences of both poetry and everyday speech. Celestial Bodies evokes the forces that constrain us and those that set us free.”
Elegantly structured and taut, Celestial Bodies, published by Sandstone Press, is set in the village of al-Awafi, where we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society which is slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present.
Reviewing the winner for The Irish Times, Prof Michael Cronin, director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation, wrote: “How women fare in changed circumstances and what they are and are not allowed to remember is a recurring preoccupation.
“Alharthi tracks the fortunes of a merchant family with a troubled past in the slave trade and concentrates in particular on the lives and destinies of sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khowla. Ranging across three generations with a crowd of voices tracking Oman’s shift from a typical desert dynasty of the village al-Awafi to the urban oasis of the city Muscat, 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. They possess agency and character and in their different ways deal with the logjam of tradition and the uncertain freedoms of expanding worlds. The novel is also told in part through the voice of Abdallah, the husband of Mayya, whose tale of abuse at the hands of his father Sulayman, also picks up on the unspoken atrocities of slavery in the region.
“Celestial Bodies deftly undermines recurrent stereotypes about Arab language and cultures but most importantly brings a distinctive and important new voice to world literature.”
Alharthi was born in Oman in 1978. She is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, a children’s book, and three novels in Arabic. Fluent in English, she completed a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry in Edinburgh, and teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. She lives in Oman.
Marilyn Booth was born in Boston in 1955. A fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, where she lives, she holds the Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Chair for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the Oriental Institute.
The 2019 prize marks the end of the Man Group’s 18-year sponsorship. The prizes, sponsored for the next five years by Crankstart, will now be known as the Booker Prize and the International Booker Prize.