Bone & Bread / Saleema Nawaz
Toronto: Anansi, c2013.
I enjoyed this novel for so many reasons. It's set largely in Montreal, so of course the joy of revisiting and trying to identify some of my old environs was wonderful -- though you don't have to be a Montrealer to feel engaged in this vividly drawn setting.
The most notable thing for me was the writing itself. It is beautiful, capturing images, characters, feelings, in its many descriptions, metaphors, and simply lovely sentences. It reads as completely natural and yet is also a clear reflection of such talent. I am envious!
The story details the relationship of two sisters, Beena and Sadhana, who are orphaned early, in quite a disturbing manner. These sisters have a Sikh father and a Western mother, and grow up in Montreal largely distant from their Indian family, other than an uncle. This uncle works in their father's bagel shop, and takes over both the shop and the girls' guardianship once they are left orphans. This is a realistic, difficult, yet ultimately powerful relationship for them all.
The book covers issues of sibling love and rivalry, family bonds, grief, the difficulty of maintaining and identifying one's cultural background, sexual desires and roles, teen pregnancy, anorexia, how much one can help really another person, and more. It is rife with issues, replete with drama.
And yet it is also extremely readable, engaging, and illuminating. The issues do not overwhelm the story itself; they are a natural part of the narrative, unlike novels in which story seems to exist simply to prop up a favoured perspective on The Issue that the author is dealing with. This seems to me to be a tough balance, but Nawaz manages it effortlessly.
I found the younger years of the sisters the most powerful, as they depend on one another utterly, and coexist in a small space, helping one another face the world. As they hit their mid-teens, Beena becomes pregnant, while Sadhana finds her focus in anorexia. They both move into their own private worlds until they finally split apart physically as well, with Beena moving to Ottawa with her young son to find a place of her own. The rest of the book details their efforts to stay connected despite the magnetic pull between them which both draws them together and repels.
There was one element right at the conclusion that I felt was jarring; Beena has been searching for Sadhana's diary after her death. She finally lays her hands on it -- but doesn't even open it, doesn't read it. In her circumstances, I can't imagine not reading it. It did feel a bit anticlimactic.
Nonetheless, this was a wonderful book, with much to admire. The setting was so well done, and the sisters' relationship was loving and difficult, very true to life. There were moments when Nawaz' choice of phrasing made me stop, look at everything differently, and reread the sentence more than once. I enjoyed it, and was interested in each character's take on the world, whether it was Beena, Sadhana, or one of the people who surrounded them. Intriguing reading, with lots to discuss.