Bitter Orange Tree by Jokha Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth

I read this book because I am taking part in a MOOC – massive open online course – that is free on Future Learn written by Edinburgh University. It is called How to Read a Novel. Spread over 4 weeks with each week focusing on a different element of a novel: plot, characters, dialogue and setting and a book from the James Tait Prize shortlist. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, Bitter Orange by Jokka Alharthi, Bolla by Pajtim Statovci and After Sappho Selby Wynn Schwartz.

Bitter Orange Tree is for week 2 with emphasis on characters and what we know about them. First we looked at how we know about characters – action, dialogue and description and then the omniscient narrator along with stream of conscience. This is all then applied to the book so I am going to concentrate on this element in the review.

The story revolves around the memories of a young woman who has left her country of Oman to come to a cold place to study. She has left her family behind, including her Grandmother who died just before she moved to the new country. The book shares her memories and dreams of her family as she tries to settle in a new country alongside the guilt based on how she treated her Grandmother before she died. Chapters move between the past and present, introducing new characters all who have obstacles to overcome. These obstacles show us life in Oman from after WW1 up until the present day, including the invasion of Kuwait.

At the start of the book, the characters are introduced by their hands: wrinkled and fleshy with a tough black nail, slender fingers with precisely clipped nails, hands untouched by hard work, hands rooted in the household and hands with long nails, shaped like half-crescents. It’s a really interesting way of telling us something about the character, almost as a shortcut for showing their age, traits and how much work they have done. Eyes are used in the same way.

When Salman saw her, he was smitten with the look in her eyes. It was the expression of someone who had experienced everything, who knew everything, and therefore no longer took any interest in the world. It was a look both careworn and uncaring. The self-sufficiency and superiority in that look could make you dizzy.

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These are the eyes of a young woman who had been married twice by the age of sixteen, the first time at nine and who had lost her baby.

During her time at University in the cold place (Edinburgh?), Zuhour made friends with Suroor, she of the precisely clipped nails, and through her, her sister Kuhl. Kuhl has fallen in love with another student, Imran, but he is not from a wealthy background and she feels her parents would not allow the relationship so she keeps it a secret. The secret becomes too big and heavy for Suroor and so she drops out of the friendship group and a triangle of Zuhour, Imran and Kuhl are left. It is at this point that Zuhour becomes an unreliable narrator, suggesting that Imran is as much in love with her as she is with him although she watches Kuhl and Imran together and talks for long hours about Kuhl’s passion for Imran. This is the one snippet in the book of memories and dreams where I was left a bit disappointed, wanting to know how the situation ended. Did they tell Kuhl’s parents? Did they both become doctors? Perhaps Zuhour’s part in this story is more of a dream than reality.

A lot of this book is about independence and intimacy. When her Grandmother called out ‘Don’t leave me!’ as Zuhour walked off from visiting her to go and do other things, the guilt pressed in. Once her Grandmother had died, all she wanted was more time with her. She clings to her dreams and memories in place of her Grandmother.

The book has a lot to say about the place of women in Omani and Pakistani society. At one point, Kuhl’s life is likened to a kite,

In the beginning, she believed that the she had a firm hold on the cord that tethered that kite, and that she could control its movements. But the kite didn’t repsond to her tugs. It flew away, eluding the pull of that thin and frail thread, which was really no more than an imaginary line. It was a kite far in the distance, hovering, circling, now ramming into a lampost, now getting caught on antenna, and finally, likely to be ripped to tatters as it chafed against a length of barbed wire. Or it might careen back to earth, but then it would surely plunge straight into the dirt.

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To be so out of control of your own life was a hard obstacle to overcome. And these obstacles sometimes ended in the women no longer having the words to express themselves or in some cases being totally silent. The women find solace in religion – Zuhour’s mother, unselfish love for children -Bint Aamir and her friend next door, silence – Sumayya, and death – the gypsy woman.

The character we end up knowing least about is Zuhour. Her name translates as blossom and we have no way of knowing whether the name fits her or is a contrast. She has become in the book a conduit for the other characters to appear and so her times in the cold city are not as well-drawn as they are in Oman. There is a feeling of this book being short stories that have been brought together by dreams and memories but several of the characters’ stories couldn’t be memories or dreams because Zuhour was not around at that time. They could be memories of conversations but aren’t presented in that way.

An interesting book that needed in-depth study to find some of the more interesting nuances but not one to rave about.

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