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April 2, 2013

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

bone-and-breadIn a way, it seems fitting to talk about a recipe in reference to Saleema Nawaz’s first novel Bone and Bread, a book that is so very much about food and hunger. It seems fitting to say that this is a novel absolutely packed/plotted with ingredients: family drama, tragedy, humour, intrigue, politics. Truly, there is something here to appeal to every reader (spectacular writing not the least of it), but really this wouldn’t be the right way to talk about the book at all, to reduce it to its parts. Because the thing about Bone and Bread is its very wholeness, the effortlessness nature of its construction. “It’s so good, and it’s not even trying,” was what I said to someone when I heard Saleema Nawaz read at Type Books two weeks back. I’d started reading it the evening before, burning through 100 pages before I turned my light out.

I probably shouldn’t have been so blown away by the novel’s goodness though. That night at Type Books was the first time I met Saleema Nawaz in person, but I’ve known her online for a while, and I’ve known her best through her writing, through the essay she’s contributed to my forthcoming anthology. And from her essay, I knew already that Nawaz is the real thing, a writer as devoted to language as she is to story. The kind of writer who crafts lines like, “The truth was that I liked all [the bagel boys]. I wanted all of them in the way that a dissonant chord wants resolution, setting a vibration out into the world. In the way that a teenager wants to get her life started.”

“My sister and I stopped bleeding at the same time,” an early chapter begins. Told from the perspective of Beena who has always been strangely bound to her sister Sadhana, mainly through the eccentric nature of their upbringing, this line is emblematic of the ways in which the sisters’ experience are linked but ever worlds apart. Because Beena has stopped her period because she is pregnant, just sixteen years old after not even a real romance with one of the boys who works in her uncle’s bagel shop. While Sadhana’s anorexia has begun to overtake her body and mind, a disease whose symptoms would come and go, but would eventually claim her life 18 years later.

Perhaps it’s just because I am pregnant myself, but I don’t know how I could have made it through this book without the wood fire bagel place that has recently opened in close range of my house. Nawaz writes so evocatively about food and hunger, the novel’s most central metaphors, but she renders them literally as well, so much so that it made my stomach growl. Beena and Sadhana are raised in the apartment above the bagel shop in Montreal, the shop that had been their father’s until his sudden death. They’d lived in the apartment with their mother until her death (at the dinner table, yes) during their early teen years, after which their severe and distant uncle became reluctantly enlisted with their care. It’s soon after this that they both stop bleeding, each girl’s life taking on a remarkably separate trajectory even as their experiences remain inextricably linked.

These events are narrated by Beena in the present day who is still in shock from her sister’s death six months before, and who suffers its fall-out as her eighteen year-old son Quinn clearly blames her for what happened to his beloved aunt. But what did happen to Sadhana? Beena is not entirely sure. She suspects her son knows more about it than he’s letting on, and that there is a connection between Sadhana and the probing questions Quinn has started asking about the father he never knew. The web becomes more complicated as Beena uncovers a link between Sadhana’s political work advocating for a refugee and Quinn’s father who has become a right-wing anti-immigrant politican in Quebec and whose name is turning up everywhere. Beena must face her own questions about the cirumstances of her sister’s death and the possibility of her own complicity in its circumstances.

This is a fascinating novel about sisterhood, and what is most compelling about it, in spite what this novel’s gorgeous cover design might suggest, is that there is no symmetry between Beena and Sadhana. They’re not twins, though there is something twin-like in the bond between them, but this is mainly in that, as the text points out at one point, it’s difficult to tell where one sister ends and the other begins. They are complicated, messy personalities who are compatible in some respects, but drive each other apart in others. Their love is as intense as their rivalry and the conflict ever firing between them. Sadhana’s true nature is obscured by Beena’s perspective, as there was so much she never knew about her sister, and so she remains an enigma haunting the novel. But Beena too is just as hard to read, and in many ways she’s as unknown to herself as she is to her reader, and unpuzzling both these women who refuse to be pinned down (or earn our outright sympathy) is one of the book’s most fascinating pleasures.

Bone and Bread is an intense read, 400 pages but a fast read, gorgeously literary and a page-turner. And I’m not really sure what possible recipe could ever come up with such a mix, but as a reader I am overjoyed that Saleema Nawaz worked it out so well.

One thought on “Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz”

  1. Tanya says:

    Great review. i was unsure about whether i wanted to read this book or not. Now i know that i do. Thanks!

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