44 pages 1 hour read

Jokha Alharthi

Celestial Bodies

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


Celestial Bodies is a novel by Omani author Jokha Alharthi, translated into English by Marilyn Booth. Charting the lives of various generations of a family in the fictional town of al-Awafi, it depicts an evolving Omani society that is still coming to grips with the post-colonial world and the abolition of slavery. It won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

Plot Summary

The plot for Celestial Bodies skips around in time, alternating between Abdallah’s reminiscences on a plane, his daughter London’s birth, and various subplots of minor characters.

The story opens with Mayya reluctantly accepting a marriage proposal from Abdallah, the son of Merchant Sulayman. Soon after, Mayya gives birth to a baby girl and names her London. Salima, Mayya’s mother, visits her at the house of Merchant Sulayman, where Sulayman’s former slave and lover, Zarifa, is head of the household. Later, Mayya will have two sons, but she hopes her daughter will have many opportunities, and lives vicariously through London.

Mayya has two sisters, Asma and Khawla, who both receive proposals from the two sons of Emigrant Issa. Asma accepts and leads a relatively happy life with her self-absorbed artist husband, Khalid, and their many children. Khawla does not accept the proposal, as she still believes that she is engaged to her childhood sweetheart, Nasir, who moved to Canada to study. Nasir will not get his inheritance unless he marries Khawla, so he does, but lives a double life with his girlfriend in Canada. For a decade, he returns to al-Awafi occasionally to visit his children and impregnate Khawla again. Eventually, he returns permanently, but Khawla asks him for a divorce.

Around the time of Asma’s marriage, the girls’ father (Salima’s husband), Azzan, has an affair with a Bedouin woman, Najiya. His marriage with Salima is distant due to the deaths of their two sons. Najiya later disappears, and rumors circulate that her brother accidentally shot her. Mayya thinks Salima has something to do with Najiya’s disappearance.

Zarifa is the daughter of a raped slave and spends her life serving Merchant Sulayman after he purchases her from a cruel master. After a fight, Sulayman punishes Zarifa by marrying her to Habib, an aggressive and disobedient slave. Zarifa raises Abdallah after his mother’s mysterious death. When the slaves are freed, Zarifa stays with Sulayman, but Habib flees, leaving behind their son, Sanjar. Sanjar too leaves when he grows older, and his mother eventually moves with him. She dies, and Abdallah is unable to attend the funeral, but suspects that Zarifa had something to do with his mother’s death.

Sanjar’s wife, Shanna, has an elderly mother, Masouda, with a psychological disorder. Shanna shuts Masouda in a house by herself and comes by to take care of her. When Sanjar moves, Shanna goes with him and leaves her mother alone. Masouda recalls when Abdallah was first born, and his mother, Fatima, slept apart from her husband, Sulayman. Sulayman’s sister went to Sulayman in the night and told him she saw Fatima and a male slave together. The sister offered to take care of the problem. Fatima died shortly after, and London later suspects someone poisoned Fatima.

London becomes a doctor and falls in love with Ahmad, a poet. The pair become engaged, though Mayya disapproves of the “peasant.” London sees Ahmad with another woman and later sees the woman’s photo in his wallet. Ahmad beats London when she breaks off their engagement.

Abdallah’s aunt and uncle raise their quiet son, Marwan, to be a devout holy man, but he cannot stop himself from stealing. With every incident, he harms himself as punishment. He eventually cuts his wrists, committing suicide.

In the present, Abdallah flies to Frankfurt and reminisces. During his childhood, his father was abusive. Once, Sulayman held him upside down in a well: a punishment that still haunts Abdallah. Abdallah’s father’s violence make him worry about his treatment of his sons: Muhammad, who has autism, and Salim, whom he falsely accuses of drinking. Merchant Sulayman’s father was an arms dealer, and Sulayman was a slave trader. As the novel closes, Abdallah has an abstract dream in which he meets his father, London, Mayya, and his autistic son, whom he guides into the sea. Abdallah emerges completely dry, suggesting he is letting go of his past.