Bitter Orange Tree is an interesting book to review. There isn’t a standard plot, per se. The synopsis version is that it’s the tale of a young Omani woman, Zuhour, who leaves Oman to attend university in Great Britain. As she adapts to life in England, she also replays her memories of Bint Aamir, the woman who had been like a grandmother to Zuhour. Time proves to be fluid, as the book ebbs and flows between the present with Zuhour and the past with Bint Aamir. Though only told through Zuhour’s memories, we get a fuller story of Bint Aamir’s life, from World War I until her death, which occurred as Zuhour left for her education.
Yet while Alharthi shows how time is fluid, she also emphasizes its immutability. Our triumphs and failures, our joys and our regrets, are here to stay. Zuhour is painfully aware of this, as she endures the memories of Bint Aamir begging her not to go. But she recalls the words of a poet: All your tears, all your pleas, will erase not a line of that which is written. There is nothing for her to do except remember. Throughout the story, characters wrestle with the question of what do we owe our families versus what we owe ourselves. Is it our duty to stay at home for as long as our elders need us? Should parents be encouraging their grown children to strike out on their own or hold them tight, pleading “don’t go”?
Multiple characters struggle with those conflicting desires. One of Zuhour’s friends at University, a young woman from a wealthy Pakistani family, struggles with whether to tell her family of her temporary marriage to a man from a poor rural village. A neighbor of Bint Aamir wanders the streets, crying for her missing son. He had simply moved from Oman to the United States. And Bint Aamir’s final words and final moments continue to haunt Zuhour.
The thing which drew me to this book, and kept me reading page after page, was the absolutely gorgeous writing. It is a testament to both Jokha Alharthi and the translator Marilyn Booth, and it’s no surprise that language plays such a significant role. As Zuhour tries to navigate her way through the social dictates of her new life, she finds herself occasionally letting information slip out that she would have rather kept to herself. After one such instance, she wonders:
Why don’t words come automatically with threads that we can yank to pull them back inside ourselves? But there are no threads attached. Those words had been said. What’s done is done.
It is a question I’m sure nearly everyone has asked in some form or another as they internally curse their tongue for moving faster than their brain. Later on, she muses about the “trap of language,” writing:
At the time, was I even aware of such a thing as the trap of language? I don’t recall. Did I really say something to him about feeling disabled because of language. I don’t think so. If I Had said anything like that, he would not have noticed it anyway. He would not have detected this trap. He didn’t see me as disabled, bound to a wheelchair that was language’s incapacity to fully express me. No, no. We didn’t have any discussions about traps of any kind.
Bitter Orange Tree ends with a few lines of poetry and then lets you flow away. But the rhythm and beauty of the language stays with you even as the cover closes.