Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (translated by Marilyn Booth)

Jokha, Alharthi - Celestial Bodies

I was nineteen when I first came across the story of Patient Griselda, within the Clerk’s Tale in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. For those who don’t know the story, Griselda’s husband sets out to test her obedience, first by removing their two children at birth, supposedly to have them killed, then by throwing her out of their (i.e. his) home, divorcing her, and recalling her specifically to arrange his wedding to a new, much younger bride. He’s rich, obviously.

The story plays out over several years and has a ‘happy’ ending. When Griselda’s husband decides she’s passed his cruel and humiliating obedience tests, he reunites her with the children – not dead after all – and returns her to her status as his wife, while the new, young ‘bride’ revealed as her long-lost daughter. (If you ever think your family is a tad dysfunctional…)

Griselda’s patience is held up as an exemplar for womanhood. That was hard to sell even to my eager-to-please nineteen-year-old self. (Do men want their wives to be door-mats? Really? And if they did why would any woman want to get married, let alone come back for seconds?) As I’ve got older, I find the story much more sinister: her husband an expert in coercive control and Griselda’s ‘patience’ the locked-down response of an abuse victim.

Chaucer didn’t create the Griselda story. He adapted an old European folk tale, as did other writers, Boccaccio, Petrarch and Perrault. Elements of the story are rehashed by Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale (which has the most famous stage direction ever, possibly – kudos points if you know what it is ^). More recently, in Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls, Griselda is finally given a voice as a guest at a fantasy dinner party.

I don’t know whether Omani novelist and academic Jokha Alharthi is familiar with Patient Griselda, let alone had any thoughts of reclaiming her story. Certainly Khawla, the youngest of the three sisters at the heart of Alharthi’s book, waits for her cousin, Nasir, to return to Oman from Canada to marry her “with a conviction that simply would not admit any of the doubt others were trying to instil in her”.

When Nasir finally does come back and marry her (it turns out his mother’s will states he must do so as a condition of his inheritance, which wouldn’t be a valid condition here – possibly in Oman – but, hey, it doesn’t spoil a good story) the ink’s barely dry on the wedding certificate when he jets back to Canada and his Canadian girlfriend, popping back to visit (and impregnate) Khawla every other year for the next ten years.

“The more patience she showed with his serial abandonment, the more estimable she seemed in her own eyes, if not in anyone else’s…Her painful life was exemplary…a sublime and self-immolating love that could not be shattered.” Perhaps I read Griselda all wrong, maybe she’s an emotional masochist.

But enough of Griselda. Celestial Bodies won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019. According to the blurb, the novel’s original Arabic title (Sayyidat al-qamar) literally translates as ‘Ladies of the Moon’. That seems to be a more appropriate title and I can’t think why it was changed in translation.

The moon is recurring motif. The middle sister, Asma, talks with her husband, Khalid, about “an ancient legend. That people were all the same, all one sex, male and female both, all children of the moon” (i.e. the myth of soul-mates, which in the Western tradition derives from the ancient Greeks). The girls’ father, Azzan, is seduced by a Bedouin woman calling herself Qamar (the Moon). When Azzan is ill, Asma reads to him from a tattered notebook he retrieves from under his pillow: “Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matters of this lower world, and so it is a guide to all things.”

Ultimately, Celestial Bodies is about love: longing for it, searching for it, the “awful force” of it. But it’s not a romantic book. When Nasir finally devotes himself to Khawla and their children, Khawla demands a divorce; Khalid chooses to marry Asma because she “fit his needs perfectly” not because she’s his soul-mate; the eldest sister, Maya, marries Abdallah, who adores her, but she does not reciprocate and he believes she “never could see the vast and tortuous expanse of my love”.

I’ll give the last word to Hannan, the best friend of Maya and Abdallah’s daughter, London: “This romance thing. With all due respect …to lovers, songs…poetry, flowers, the moon…this isn’t big on rationality…As far as I’m concerned what marriage is doesn’t have a lot to do with love. Love is dreams, marriage is for real: life, responsibility, children. No illusions.”

Rating: ** Worth reading

^ Kudos points for knowing the stage direction is “Exit, pursued by a bear” (in Act 3, Scene 3).

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