Bitter Orange Tree

Catapult. May 2022. 224p. ISBN 9781646220038. $26. F
This latest from Man Booker International Prize winner Alharthi (Celestial Bodies) is narrated by Zuhour, an Omani woman studying at a British university. Even as Zuhour struggles to fit into British society, her friend Kuhl enters into a secret marriage with Imran, a man of whom her family disapproves and with whom Zuhour is secretly in love. Much of the novel consists of stories about Zuhour’s extended family. She is particularly haunted (somewhat literally) by her so-called grandmother Bint Aamir, who practically raised her. Bint Aamir is actually a relative taken in by Zuhour’s grandfather after being thrown out of the house by her father’s new wife. Never able to fulfill her own dreams or desires, she becomes de facto mother to two generations of Zuhour’s family. This focus on family history reveals the limited options and opportunities of the women in Zuhour’s life and the abuse and postpartum depression they endure, suggesting that Zuhour’s guilt over leaving Bint Aamir behind comes from recognizing that she has managed to escape the fate of her grandmother, mother, and sister. Interestingly, readers never learn much about Zuhour herself.
VERDICT Alharthi is an important new voice in world literature, and while Zuhour remains underdeveloped as a character, the novel is worth reading for the insights into Omani culture, particularly with regard to its exploration of family bonds and obligations, specifically women’s plight in those dynamics.
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