Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam

I asked you why you loved me and you said love's arguments are always teleological. You love someone because you already love them. You love their particular qualities, because you love them in the wholeness of their being. And because you love them in the wholeness of their being, you love the things about them that wound you.

You quoted Rumi: "The wound is where the light enters you."

"This was a more complicated answer than I bought," I said, "I was going for the five-dollar answer."

~fr. pp. 283-4 of Advance Reader Copy, The Bones of Grace (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

I realized, as I was fetching the image for The Bones of Grace, that it's one of those rare books that's already slipped from my mind after less than a month. So, I gave it a couple days and the story is slowly coming back to me. The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam is the story of a Bangladeshi woman, told upon reflection.

At the beginning of the book, Zubaida receives the bones of Grace, a walking whale whose bones may be a missing evolutionary link. She is back at Harvard, now, where her story begins. You know from this beginning that she has loved, betrayed, and lost touch with a man named Elijah, and now she hopes he will miraculously appear someday, but probably knows better. From here on, the book jumps back and forth in time.

Elijah is a laid-back American guy, a lover of music that Zubaida meets by chance as she's winding down her days in Cambridge and preparing to go dig up bones in Pakistan. She is engaged to a man she's known all her life but the attraction between Zubaida and Elijah is immediate and powerful. They stay in touch when she leaves the country; but after tragedy strikes at the work site, she goes home to Bangladesh and marries. Then, a second heartbreak makes Zubaida reconsider her life and she takes a job working on a documentary film about shipbreaking in Chittagong, away from her husband and family. While she's away from her new home, she attempts to locate her birth mother and Elijah comes to visit her.

Zubaida has known she's adopted since she was young, but nobody will tell her the details and this leaves her feeling incomplete. Will Zubaida ever uncover her roots? What happened between her and Elijah in Chittagong that broke them apart forever?

Recommended but not a favorite - I loved Tahmima Anam's writing style, apart from the beginning, which I found confusing. I thought she tried to keep things mysterious and the only real mysteries were the origin of her birth -- which is so important to her that it's at the root of everything she does, for better or worse -- and what exactly she did to betray Elijah. There was no reason to make the occasional scene so vague. Still, I liked her writing enough that I kept going. In the end, I liked the atmosphere more than the story itself. The theme of bones is everywhere - the bones of the whale, the bones of ships, the bones of family and whether those of birth and that biological connection are more important than the connections of child and parent who raised her, regardless of biology.

But, the tone is deeply melancholy and I had trouble relating to Zubaida. Why was her origin story so important? Why was she so easily able to give up her career -- after obtaining an advanced degree at Harvard, no less -- but unable to follow her heart? I found her a baffling character, so quick to travel to far places, so frustrated about her birth story, yet completely unwilling or unable to simply say, "I've met this guy and I need to figure things out before I say yes to something as permanent as marriage." So, it was an average read because the story itself felt like it was somehow unbalanced. And, yet, I would consider reading more by Anam, in the hopes that she can tie things together better. I know people are mysterious and confusing and weird in real life and what we do doesn't always make sense. But, that's one reason I like to escape to novels. I like a little more order in my reading than I see in the world, sometimes and I felt like The Bones of Grace was a bit too amorphous for my taste.

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  1. It’s not good when a book won’t stick with you. Maybe one of her other books will work better.

    1. That's true but I'm fascinated by what sticks and what doesn't. I've occasionally given a book 5 stars and then promptly forgotten it, but sometimes I'll give a book a lesser rating and then it stays with me so long that my impression of it changes and I'm tempted to go back and raise my rating. Strange! I will definitely give her a second go.


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