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Review: ‘Bitter Orange Tree’ by Jokha Alharthi is ‘a tale of fortitude and selflessness’

June 5, 2022 Updated Mon., June 6, 2022 at 8:40 a.m.

“Bitter Orange Tree” by Jokha Alharthi, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth.  (Catapult/Tribune News Service)
“Bitter Orange Tree” by Jokha Alharthi, translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth. (Catapult/Tribune News Service)
By Malcolm Forbes Star Tribune

Jokha Alharthi achieved two significant firsts with her novel “Celestial Bodies.” She became the first author writing in Arabic to be awarded the Man Booker International Prize. Perhaps more important, she was the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English. That prize-winning book traced the mixed fortunes of three Omani sisters against the changing tides and shifting currents of their country’s modern history.

“Bitter Orange Tree,” Alharthi’s second novel to be admirably translated by Marilyn Booth, follows a protagonist who has traveled far from Oman. As she tries to settle down in her new surroundings, she finds herself musing at length on the relationships she formed in her native land, the family she left behind and the life and legacy of a dearly departed relative.

Zuhour is a student at a British university. When not out acclimatizing to the snowy weather, she is providing comfort for her worried Pakistani friend Suroor, whose headstrong sister Kuhl has gone behind her parents’ back and married her lover in secret.

However, Zuhour is plagued by more pressing concerns. The woman she always regarded as her grandmother, Bint Amir, has died, “Gone silent, left the world as she lived in it, without a home, without a field, without a beloved to hold her close.” Raw with grief but also racked with guilt at abandoning her grandparent, Zuhour looks back and pieces together her story through fragmented recollections.

It is a tale of fortitude and selflessness. We learn how Bint Amir and her brother became lone orphans after being thrown out of their home by their father. When her brother died, she was forced to eke out a meager living making and selling charcoal until a distant family member and his wife took her under their wing. Despite further hardships, she struggled on, raising other people’s children, enduring partial blindness and all the time “forgiving the sins and faults of the world.”

Zuhour reflects on other relatives and standout stages in their development, such as the drastic way her sister won her freedom from her aggressive husband, and how her father fell head over heels for a woman who was “a kaleidoscopic assemblage” of “joy, birds, little mirrors, cardamom, ginger, dates, ambergris, dawn prayers.” But still she keeps returning to her grandmother, and as Bint Amir’s life takes shape, Zuhour’s shows signs of falling apart.

Alharthi keeps her reader emotionally invested in both women. She emphasizes their tight bond by switching between one character’s past and the other’s present and braiding together their experiences.

Some of her metaphors might feel heavy-handed (a kite in the wind, that titular tree), but for the most part her novel is an elegant meditation on remembering and forgetting. As Zuhour tells herself, “memory becomes a vanishing fragrance, this memory is gone, and this is where the pure, calm sunset fades into nothing.”

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