“… the story of becoming, of transformation, of leaping between one sort of being and another sort of being, of leaving history behind for the wide swathe of the possible.” – The Bones of Grace
I dream of bones. Of the muscle that binds them together, that softness which eventually withers and leaves stories and histories behind. Bones say so much – bones endure. Bones: windows to the past, an exploration of it, a justification, a legacy of it. The bones of whales or of broken ships, of those making up the ribs of a child or a man fallen and crushed, of women and their lost and abandoned things, of orphans and twins, the bones of love and grace and history.
I dream of bones along with Tahmima Anam. We found a sense of togetherness in the cupped out marrow of things.
The Bones of Grace is the third book in Anam’s trilogy of the Haque family, though this one can serve as a standalone read as well. The story arcs of the first two books do not continue as such, though The Bones of Grace does carry on in the fate of the Haque family or as it has evolved over time. The reader meets Zubaida at the closing pages of The Good Muslim as Maya achieves self-realization in the courthouse dedicated on trying war criminals and traitors to the Bengali cause. A new mother-daughter dynamic begins again, and Zee grows up to be far removed from the world her mother inhabits, reminiscent of the divergence between Maya and her mother Rehana in the very first novel, A Golden Age. The daughter emerges as an individual by the very act of breaking away from the womb, from the mother – Anam’s three female leads are, thus, individualized portraitures of femininity, of power and strength, of self-reliance, and so when they do interact there is a current of hostility but also of respect and profound admiration.
For readers who have stuck with Anam from her debut novel, The Bones of Grace is remarkable for ending where it began. This meta-textual element, more prominent in this third novel, makes Anam’s work self-aware and self-critical, commenting and remembering its characters from fresher perspectives, containing the past in itself at the same time as it fleshes out a future. Our lead, Zubaida, therefore, is more than a narrator and the center of her own cosmos, she is the author coming to grips with the art and purpose of storytelling, she also mirrors the reader as she continually interprets and comments on the “past” (the combined stories of Maya and Rehana).
Being an “adopted” daughter, the absence of biological ties with the mother-daughter dynamic preceding her, Zee has the privilege of critique, of objectivity – the fact that she is not an extension as such of the women before her, makes her story more unique, and she, therefore, finds herself in locales outside of Bangladesh, speaking often something other than the vernacular. Zubaida, for this reason, is larger, more cosmopolitan, her roots tapped into history, but her twisted branches spreading across the blue, naked sky. Rehana in A Golden Age was trapped in Shona by the love of her children, fighting a war she did not understand – Maya in The Good Muslim fought disillusionment still caught in the same world of protests and insurrectionism. But Zubaida’s story is more personal, and therefore more human, more accessible. She fights love, what it means, what it must cost, and how ultimate it often is. She fights need, for home, for recognition, for familiarity, for a birth name. Her journey is, therefore, smaller compared to the women before her, but just as much important, if not more identifiable.
The carving inside bones, bones that we inherit, the shape of them which becomes the shape of us, bones of old and beautiful things, bones that tell us the passage of time and its irreversibility and yet its memory, the memory of ancestors, of lineage, of broken histories, but ultimately bones that sing of origins. Of Home. Of who we once were, and who perhaps we were always supposed to be.
Of seeking out origins, Zubaida’s story is a story of becoming, of coming of age, and her endeavor stands as a metaphor for a country which seeks to find its place after its late inception. Zubaida is a metonym for Bangladesh – her story is, therefore, the story of the Bengali people whom we have known and loved throughout Anam’s trilogy. They fought and bled and killed in the name of A Golden Age; they lost identities and memories in The Good Muslim, recovering from the wounds of war in their own ways, and now in The Bones of Grace, they come of age, accepting their origins, their untimely pubescence, and find peace in a history trammeled with love and blood, and incredible courage.
“… here lies a whale, a creature who lives and eats and breathes by the ocean’s heartbeat.”
With Zubaida are Anwar and Meghna, parallel beings, living on the peripheries of a world Zee has outgrown. Their stories are of the swamps of Bangladesh, its darkness and oblivion, dotted with unfulfilled desires where to reach out is to risk falling.
“… the country my parents love so deeply is as troubled as it has ever been, but also that it exists in a sort of ecstatic state, an escape artist overcoming, with only seconds to spare, every catastrophe that befalls it.”
And yet we persevere, made of enduring bones each of us. Anam with her lyrical prose and memorable characters, tracing the elaborate journey of the Haque family, tells us exactly this. That time heals us all, that life comes full circle, that family and food and the warmth thereof is perhaps enough. The Bones of Grace is lovingly written (though sometimes verbose), and will satisfy and even surprise Anam’s accustomed reader. For those ignorant of her name, it is advised to begin with the first book and travel therefrom for the journey promised is an unforgettable one.
Reviewer’s Rating: 3/5
Momina Masood is an editorial intern at Open Road Review.