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.