Book review: The Bones of Grace – uneven beauty, heart-wrenching sadness and rare power
Tahmima Anam concludes her Bengal trilogy with a novel that, in recounting the story of a love across continents and ethnic lines, subtly addresses the deepest concerns of our age
The Bones of Grace
by Tahmima Anam
Text Publishing/Canongate Books
Nothing about The Bones of Grace, the third in Tahmima Anam’s loose trilogy of novels about her native Bangladesh, plays out in predictable or humdrum ways.
A novel of unusual, uneven beauty, heart-wrenching sadness and rare imaginative power, it is a timely reminder of why this Dhaka-born novelist and anthropologist is a judge of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, and also why Granta included her on its 2013 list of the 20 best young writers.
Anam first won international acclaim with her 2009 debut novel, The Golden Age, the first in this trilogy, in which she set out to chronicle three generations of the Haque family from the Bangladesh war of independence to the present day. It won her a devoted global readership as well as the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, and its sequel, The Good Muslim, was long-listed for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. But The Bones of Grace can be enjoyed regardless of whether you’ve read the prequels in what is often referred to as the Bengal trilogy.
It opens in contemporary Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a five-word declaration by its narrator, Zubaida Haque: “I saw you today, Elijah.” The “voice” of this 28-year-old graduate palaeontologist tumbles onto the page with an immediacy and honesty that ensnares the reader from the outset.
This mysterious narrative, addressed to her former lover Elijah Strong, takes the form of a kind of reckoning; an account in words of not just this man who bears such an improbable name and is the great love of her life, but “of the whole thing”. She adds: “Also of Anwar, the man who led me to my mother, and of Grace, the ship that was ground to dust before our eyes. There is also a whale, a woman who gave up her child, a piano, and a man who searched so long and hard for his beloved that he found me.”
One of the minor miracles of this novel is that its tone of immediacy and intimacy rarely falters as it winds its way between the subcontinent and the US, between the past and the present. In the blink of a paragraph or two, we are swept up inside the complex workings of Zubaida’s twin desires: her desire to unravel the mystery of the walking whale, and her hope that this will lead her back to Elijah.
Even as she writes this narrative of reckoning she is inside a lab in Cambridge, clutching an ankle bone of Ambulocetus natans, the 49-million-year-old fossilised skeleton of the mammal she calls Diana, the so-called walking whale, a precursor to the modern whale. How she and these fossilised bones came to be here is revealed in tantalising snippets as the narrative hurtles backwards and forwards in time and place. Zubaida thinks of Diana’s bones as “a spirit of comings and goings, a beacon that leads me across continents and through time”.
The bones remain the touchstone of this narrative. Zubaida reveals that even before she met Elijah three years before, she’d already been awarded a coveted place on an archaeological dig in Pakistan to retrieve Diana’s bones from the sediments of the ancient Tethys Sea. But her first words to Elijah are not about her imminent departure for the dig, but of how, at age nine, her parents, former revolutionaries in Bangladesh’s war of independence, had revealed that she was adopted and never spoke of it again.
Elijah’s parents are both Harvard professors and Zubaida is fascinated by the contrast between his all-American family and her own. They spend her few remaining days in Cambridge together in a whirl of shared confidences and experiences, and vow to engage in some sort of emotionally coded communication when she leaves by texting each other the lyrics of Nina Simone songs.
Yet it is only when she is in the red desert sands of Dera Bugti, in Pakistan, “searching for the bones that will rewrite everything we have known about our history”, that Zubaida realises she is in love with Elijah. This revelation dawns on her together with some of the harsher realities of this part of Balochistan province, riven by war and age-old rivalries. She soon witnesses one of her colleagues, Zamzam, being brutalised and kidnapped, never to be seen again, while she and the others are forced to abandon the dig and leave the country without the coveted whale skeleton.
Her dream of creating palaeontological history in tatters, Zubaida returns to her parents in Dhaka where, despite longing for Elijah, she caves into pressure and marries her childhood sweetheart, Rashid. One day into the marriage, she realises the magnitude of her mistake.
As Zubaida reveals here, in her “reckoning” to him, the sense of despair, failure and guilt that led her to betray Elijah, she takes us deeper into the story of her family, who are, 40 years later, still shadowed by the effects of the war of independence. She also outlines how in the shadow of her own dwindling self confidence, “I became again, an obedient orphan”.
Her narrative veers between a brutal honesty and a grating self-absorption, but that appears to be Anam’s point. She deftly gives shape and form to Zubaida’s misery and well-to-do life of privilege and opportunity within the context of those three generations of women, her family, whose individual struggles each personify an aspect of Bangladesh’s evolution.
What seems like a modern, somewhat indulgent tale of love, longing and identity in an age of seemingly infinite possibilities becomes something else when, midway through the novel, Anam picks up the strands of a darker, more disturbing tale of migration, dislocation and human suffering. This sudden shift of narrative gear occurs when, soon after a miscarriage, Zubaida accepts a job offer from a friend of her mother’s to help a British filmmaker, Gabriela, make a documentary about ship-breakers in the port of Chittagong. Tasked with interviewing the labourers who dismantle the ships, she takes up temporary residence with Gabriela in a nearby beach shack. Her obsession with her origins and confusions of the heart reach crisis point soon after she invites Elijah to visit her.
The disparate elements of the tale are brought together very cleverly by Anam and readers will get deep into the novel before they realise just how broad, deep, and utterly contemporary and apposite its concerns are. From the way it addresses the plight of labourers entrapped in servitude in Dubai or in the hazardous work of ship-breaking in Bangladesh, to the pangs of individual and national identity, this is a novel that speaks so potently, so lyrically to our times and to the mystery of origins. It possesses a grace all its own.