In an engrossing book published last spring called Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, the Australian writer Jane Alison makes a trenchant observation about the “dramatic arc” long considered the foundation for plot. Swelling to a climax and then deflating, it resembles nothing so much as a phallus: “Bit masculo-sexual, no?” Alison’s book offers alternative possibilities for fiction based on patterns found in nature, such as the spirals of fiddlehead ferns, seashells, or whirlpools; the meandering path of a river; the radiating shape of a flower; the self-replication of trees or clouds; or the cells in a honeycomb. These structures aren’t necessarily feminine—as it happens, Alison’s investigation of them is inspired by her reading of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a work of fiction written by a man with predominantly male characters. But if the dramatic arc has often been associated with the “hero’s journey” model of fiction writing (a lone man goes off on a quest to conquer something), it stands to reason that a novel centered on the stories of women—often communal, connected, operating on many layers—might best be served by a different narrative form.
I found myself frequently returning to this thought while reading Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies, a rich, dense web of a novel, which has just been published in the United States. It was originally published in Oman in 2010 and recently became—with the help of translator Marilyn Booth—both the first novel by an Omani woman ever to appear in English and the first Arabic novel to win the Man Booker International Prize. (The list of Omani men published in English is nearly as brief.) Told in short sections—often only a few pages—that shift in perspective among at least a dozen characters, the novel is a family saga that meanders through a period of more than a hundred years, starting from the last days of the slave trade that brought East Africans to the Gulf and ending with the contemporary clash between a younger generation of Omanis and their more traditional parents.
The structure of Celestial Bodies might be described as labyrinthine, with characters retracing similar paths again and again, retelling old stories from changed perspectives or revisiting past wrongs after acquiring new information. There are dark secrets at the heart of the labyrinth, but the point of the novel is not necessarily to find one’s way to them—much about the plot ultimately remains cryptic. Instead, Alharthi constructs a tapestry of interlocking lives, some seen over the course of decades, others at just a single pungent moment. Rarely have I encountered a work of fiction in which form and idea were so inseparably, and appropriately, fused.
Literally translated, the novel’s title is Ladies of the Moon, which in some ways better reflects its content: the stories here are primarily the stories…
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