Book Review: Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi

Butter Orange Tree – Jokha Alharthi (Catapult, 2022)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. Publication Date: 10 May 2022

Bitter Orange Tree is the follow-up novel to Jokha Alharthi’s Man Book International Prize winning Celestial Bodies. While I haven’t read Alharthi’s previous work, I was familiar with her name and so was interested to read this latest novel.

This is a thoughtful, slow, and methodical story. More of a contemplation than a plot-driven novel. The story is told by Zuhour, a young Omani woman who has recently left her home country to study abroad at a British university. We see Zuhour struggle in a new setting, surrounded by new friends. Even her friends from Middle Eastern backgrounds come from vastly different families than her own and Zuhour cannot find her footing as she attempts to reconcile her past and her present.

But the true centre of the story is Bint Amir. This is the woman who took the role of grandmother in Zuhour’s life, a woman who died shortly after Zuhour left home. We are shown Bint Amir’s past, how her life and situation came about, and Alharthi gently and gracefully juxtaposes this against the life that Zuhour and her friends are living.

This is the true heart of the novel, I felt: how much the world can change between two women, separated by only two generations. Zuhour’s struggles are vastly different from Bint Amir’s, as she lives a life unimaginable to the older woman. It’s not hard to imagine this is a situation many young people find themselves in around the world.

The book is slow and graceful. There is a lot of beautiful writing that I enjoyed, even as I didn’t find myself drawn very deeply into the book itself. Without any plot-driven tension, it was easy to put this one down and sort of forget about it. I’m still glad I read it though. Alharthi is the first woman from Oman to be translated into English and it’s exciting that the literary world is still constantly growing and engaging with new (to us English speakers, at least) writers.

This book was translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi”

  1. Plotless books always have to work much harder to hold my attention, and they often fail. But the idea of that feeling of distance between the generations is interesting.

  2. this sounds so interesting!! ive heard quite mixed things about the author’s first translated novel, Celestial Bodies (not sure if youve read it), so maybe ill check this one out instead 🤔

  3. I was going to say, I don’t think I’ve read a book even set in Oman, let alone one from there. Books with no plot drive me insane, and I’m starting to wonder if it is because in the past I’ve had a number of friendships in which the other person talks about him or herself extensively and never asks about me, and then eventually we aren’t friends. That’s what a plotless book feels like to me: an endurance in how long I can care about someone else who fails to acknowledge I have a life.

    1. I can’t say I know anything about Oman beyond where it is so this was a really interesting read to get a glimpse into a different place.

      I love your analogy! I don’t feel that way exactly with plotless books but I do sometimes feel it’s a lot of effort to get through.

  4. Oh lovely – a translation! I know what you mean about books with no plot. This is how I felt about The Candy House by jennifer Egan – everytime I picked it up again I thought “now what’s happening again?”

    1. Yes! Books like this I have to read within a pretty short time frame because if I leave it for a couple of days I’ve completely forgotten who everybody is and what they’re doing!

  5. “Bitter Orange Tree,” the second of Alharthi’s novels to be translated into English, is due out this month and should appeal to a more prepared and knowledgeable readership. As previously, the author shows a great deal of empathy for how women endure the vicissitudes of a society that doesn’t give them much power. Fans will also recognize Alharthi’s seamless handling of time and place, again expertly translated by Booth.

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