by Jokha Alharthi
House of Anansi Press
Tender, gentle, and melancholic, Jokha Alharthi’s Narinjah: The Bitter Orange Tree is a testament to the ways in which the lives of young women are dictated by generations before them. Narrator Zohour struggles to make friends and fit into post-WWII British university life while missing and then dreaming of loved ones at home in Oman, especially her beloved grandmother, Bint Aamir. It is through these dreamscapes and living memories that readers are given insight into Bint Aamir: her resilience in the face of misogyny and violence, her unwavering spirit in spite of constant grief, and her unconditional love for her offspring. Alharthi uses these stories to juxtapose the strife faced by women in Zohour’s extended family and the laidback life of Zohour while abroad.
Alharthi’s prose is expansive as Zohour moves through her dreaming world, each emotion tied to a sensation that reiterates the liminality of Zohours experience:
But just a moment ago, I was there: before I opened my eyes and autumn plunked itself down in my consciousness. I was in her embrace. I was smelling the scents she’d worn, the extracts, and ancient soil. We were switching roles. I was repeating the words that she’d always said over and over: “Don’t go.”
While likely meant to mimic the immersive, dreamy reality Zohour experiences, Alharthi’s work sometimes feels haphazard. Paragraphs of description of the cool sand in Oman, or the solace of the shade of the bitter orange tree are followed by short, unexpected sentences that turn the story in a whole new direction, almost completely shattering the sleepy dreamscape. This jolt, though sometimes jarring, also acts as a method to weave the story between Bint Aamir’s unfulfilled wishes to Zohour’s ongoing life, expansive, and full of possibility.
Throughout the novel, we never learn Bint Aamir’s real name—we simply know her as Bint Aamir, meaning Daughter of Aamir. Yet, the life of Bint Aamir is not flattened by this patronymic. Alharthi’s work is careful and honest, written with respect for this grandmother character and the familial gravitas she represents. While the readers may feel a tinge of sadness for Bint Aamir and the life she could have lived, there is solace in knowing Zohour’s carries on. It is through Zohour that we see Bint Aamir’s unexplored desires, and as such, that the desires of a young Arab woman are not made to be shameful or trite. Zohour’s life is not one led alone; it is held up with the legacy of the women that came before her—especially her beloved Bint Aamir. A touching read for immigrants living away from their homelands, or folks rekindling family ties, Narinjah is recommended for those looking to explore the ways in which ancestry impacts our lives, even today.