Bitter Orange Tree
“The writing is vivid in the descriptions of village life in Oman . . .”
Jokha Altharthi won the Man Booker Prize for Celestial Bodies, her previous novel, setting expectations high for her new book, Bitter Orange Tree. The writing is vivid in the descriptions of village life in Oman, but the contemporary setting of the main character, Zuhour, is blandly indistinct. For a book that is supposed to show, according to the back cover, a “young Omani woman building a life for herself in Britain,” there is very little sense of that life at all. Instead, the book focuses on Zuhour’s memories of a beloved grandmother, Bint Amir, and the family stories she’s been told about her and the constellation of family around her.
All of which would be fine, if those stories created any kind of narrative build or sense of character development—for Zuhour or Bint Amir. Instead, there are a series of vignettes, of snippets of memories and family lore, all focused on family and love, how one thwarts—or supports—the other. In most of the stories, the family expectations get in the way of love, of personal fulfillment. Family, as shown here, acts as a kind of disapproving cage. Rather than show a young woman straddling two cultures—Omani and British—we see a series of young women and men who are powerless to act against familial and societal expectations, no matter what the society is.
At first the book seems to be about Zuhour’s guilt at “abandoning” her grandmother. The theme of going away, despite pleas to stay, runs through the pages. The person who does stay is Bint Amir herself, a woman who has no husband, no place except that given through the charity of others. But this charity allows her to take on the role of mother and grandmother. As Zuhour describes:
“My grandmother went home with her relative Salman and his wife, Athurayya, and she stayed for forty years. . . . My father grew up believing he had two mothers and one father, exactly as we grew up later on, believing we had two mothers: my mother who was always submerged in her sorrows and the pain of her many miscarriages, and my grandmother, always submerged in the little details of our lives and our upbringing.”
This immersion was a good thing, both for Bint Amir, who found purpose and pleasure in her life, and for the children she raised with loving attention. That is not enough for Zuhour, however, who is intently focused on romantic love: that of her Pakistani friends, and the growing one she feels for her friend’s husband.
The way love is described feels distinctly old-fashioned, as physical desire, driven primarily by appearance. Perhaps that is why Bint Amir failed at it, though the ending of the book reminds us that there was a man willing to marry her, if only her family had approved. This suggests that the fault lay not with Bint Amir, then, but her parents. Still the question is never asked whether Bint Amir herself approved of the match, mourned its loss, or worried she wasn’t good enough.
Throughout the book, men fall in love with women principally because of how they look and dress. It is made clear that men are the ones who ultimately control women:
“Kuhl grew up on the understanding that choices in life had been assigned in advance. That her body, just as it docilely wore what she was instructed to wear—always the proper and suitable thing—would be docilely taken by the man whom someone would deem most suitable for that suitably garbed body.”
But this passivity, the way women are objectified, is not a bad thing in itself. In fact, Zuhour laments that the big failure in her grandmother’s life was not to experience exactly this kind of male appreciation.
“No young admirer ever gazed into that one good eye of a young woman, and saw the intelligence, determination, and magic in her gaze. No finger quivering with desire ever traced the path of her eyebrows before they turned to white. No man was ever there to put his hand out, trembling, hesitant, to her hair, to part it or to lift its locks or to inhale its beauty. . . . Her legs never learned any other love but ours; were never desired by a man and never possessed by anyone other than us, the possessive children.”
Evidently the love of the children was not enough to fill Bint Amir’s life, at least not in the eyes of her granddaughter. Bint Amir may have felt free in her single life, but since her story is only told through Zuhour, the reader will never know.
What, in the end, is the book about? A series of vignettes offers different views of family constellations, of love shared and thwarted, of parental disapproval and constraints. The writing is interesting on each page, even if there is no narrative build, no compelling emotional journey taken by any of the many characters. Perhaps the book is meant as a series of appetizers, with no main meal. For those who enjoy that kind of reading, dig in. Others will need to look elsewhere.