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Toward the end of Bitter Orange Tree, the second of Jokha Alharthi’s novels to appear in English, a boy awakens to a mystical awareness. All at once, he knows “that at the very base and core of this world was a tiny aperture through which time itself crept”; he even spies “time’s prodigious, yet tiny, puncture in the universe.” A strange vision—yet a defining one for this drama. Alharthi’s narrative turns up many small, startling portals between decades, even generations, as a young woman a long way from home struggles to make sense of her journey from Lahore to London. Her discoveries sketch an extraordinary image over the last century and more. They are deeply intimate, though they stretch half the world, brimming everywhere with both agony and joy. By novel’s end, I daresay we’ve taken a more spectacular odyssey than Alharthi ventured on three years ago with her Booker winner Celestial Bodies.
That Booker was the International, for work in translation, and a more literal rendering of the Arabic title would have been Ladies of the Moon. The English version, however, suited the project well. In Bodies, a central figure was in fact “celestial”: a man on a long flight between Western Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. As he dozes, a kaleidoscopic family story spins around him, a story as complex and vivid as Bitter Orange Tree’s, so it’s particularly gratifying to see that the latest novel has the same canny translator, Marilyn Booth. Alharthi’s text poses special challenges, as she is one of the very few women writing out of oil-rich Oman, where slavery remained legal until 1970, which has left lingering wounds, the ugliest on Omani women. Both of Alharthi’s novels examine those scars, while also attempting to diagnose the vertigo brought on by Oman’s new freedoms and worldliness. Bitter Orange Tree (a title that renders the original directly) has an even more feminist focus than its predecessor. At times a father or uncle will occupy a few pages—all the chapters are brief—but the men’s passages can unexpectedly tumble, as if via a magic portal, into the perspective of the primary narrator, a young woman at university in England.
This is Zuhur, whose inner life opens wormholes of its own. These render the plot unconventional and difficult to summarize. In a bold phrase or two, the narrator will skip from dorm room or coffee shop across a couple of continents or a few dozen years: “I wake up . . . and from my bed all is silent. But I was there, in that dirt space in the back courtyard . . . ” As a result, Alharthi’s narrative isn’t primarily the young expat’s coming of age, but rather a family saga extending back more than a hundred years. And the central figure isn’t Zuhur so much as the woman she thinks of as her grandmother, Bint Amir. This woman died shortly before the novel begins, and it’s her the narrator visits most often when her young mind wanders. Bint Amir is the starkest contrast to Zuhur’s privileged upbringing and more broadminded notions of Islam; though the family called her “Mah,” she was only a distant relation, taken in out of pity. The old woman experienced a remarkable journey, starting life as a beggar and outcast and ending it with a surrogate family and a bit of an orchard—where the bitter oranges suggest her ambivalent triumphs.
Such ambivalence resonates not just through the episodes that feature Mah herself, but also those involving the figures around her, mostly Zuhur’s actual family. Because everyone shows up during some dreamy interlude of the narrator’s as she’s wrestling with her own issues in the UK, the chronology is rarely straightforward. Only late in the novel do we learn that the person closet to “Mah” was a man, Zuhur’s father Mansour, and only then are we assured that, in her feeble final years, Bint Amir had a loving caretaker. Yet Mansour’s affection also looks like the family curse, since everyone Zuhur can think of falls for the wrong person. Sometimes the outcome is tragic, as with her sister’s marriage, but more often these relatives achieve, like Mah, a situation they can tolerate. Bitter Orange Tree is at its core a novel about coming to terms and perseverance.
Not that the novel feels at all sentimental or settles for easy answers. Episodes open and close quickly and feature extended metaphors that express both losses and gains. In a typical passage, Zuhur contemplates what it meant for her and her siblings to leave their home:
The fragile bird of life took us along. We clung to its wings so hard that they dissolved in our grip; and so we tried to put those feathers on ourselves. We dressed ourselves in those feathers, and we drank the blood of that bird we had destroyed, and we told ourselves, “We will go on.”
Poetic as these meditations are, they never gloss over the jarring, often painful reality of the transition from a nomadic past to a jet-setter present. Bint Amir exemplifies many aspects of that changeover, though she’s never a cardboard stand-in. The novel’s opening lines evoke the long way she’s come, and the suffering it entailed; the woman’s “thick, tough black” thumbnail, marred by “a bad injury,” pokes up from one of Zuhur’s dream. The image recurs often, even as the college girl recalls the old woman’s few victories.
Eventually, the narrator feels so lost “inside [her] apparitions” that she even tries psychotherapy. As a British classmate assures her, “in her culture . . . there was a solution to every problem, even sadness.” But this friend, pale and blonde, will never grasp how irrelevant the talking cure could seem for an outsider. Zuhur’s few sessions at least help her realize how, in a land so unlike her own, she’s “disabled” by “the trap of language.” Yet by the same token, she can never expect the therapist to perceive the ghosts that cluster around her. As for her flesh-and-blood companions, those at least do include other expatriates, potential soulmates. But the Pakistani with whom she’s closest is herself a victim of traditional mores, in love with the wrong man. Worse, Zuhur finds herself smitten with the boy, too; even when her pulse quickens, she’s still stuck fast.
Now, infatuation always has its comic side, and so does this novel. To suggest it’s all hauntings and hardships is to ignore how often it reads like heroic fantasy. The mythic elements flit by quickly, but there’s no denying their place in Zuhur’s portrait-in-the-round, a canvas that feels overall like Breughel. In one corner, there’s bloodshed and usury, but in another, children tumble at play and the peasants take a break, raising their flagons. Then too, whenever the scene turns happy, it’s a woman who acts as catalyst. Bitter Orange Tree gives us a number of these feminists before their time who manipulate the patriarchy to their own ends. Even when they fail, the struggle is fascinating. When Bint Amir visits a doctor in the capital, she finds no cure for her eye injury but nevertheless gets a thrill out of the carnival of the city. Such moments don’t lessen the bruising impact of others—the mothers giving birth in the fields, the beggar-woman raped and killed—but they establish Alharthi as a master of diverse registers. An artist so profoundly engaged with women’s lives can’t help but recall Elena Ferrante, but this work has a greater serendipity; there’s never any telling where its magic apertures might whisk you next.
© 2022 by John Domini. All rights reserved.