“I spent so many years watching her disappear, little by little, that it is impossible for me to believe that there could be any of her left over.”
Orphaned as teenagers, Beena and Sadhana lose their mother just when they need her most. Their mother has no living relatives, and they are largely estranged from their father’s Indian family, who disapproved of his marriage to a white woman. Nevertheless, their uncle, who they have previously known mostly as the proprietor of the bakery formerly run by their father, becomes their guardian. He proves to be an awkward surrogate parent, a first generation immigrant stymied by the strangeness of his mixed race, Canadian-born nieces. As the girls vent their grief and push back against their uncle’s traditional views about gender roles, they make choices that will have irrevocable consequences for the rest of their lives.
We meet Beena at a time of major change in her life; her son, who has been the centre of her world for seventeen years, is grown and about to go away to university. And, six months earlier, her younger sister was found dead of a heart attack in her Montreal apartment at only thirty two years of age. Beena is struggling to come to terms with the fact that she and her sister had been fighting at the time of her death, leading her to wonder if, in her anger, she had missed the signs of her sister having a relapse. Sadhana long struggled with an eating disorder, and Beena often had to put her own life on hold to assume a caretaker role.
The strong centre-piece of this novel is the way Saleema Nawaz beautifully evinces the complicated nature of the relationship between the sisters, both their closeness, and also their desire to differentiate themselves from one another. As Beena reluctantly sorts through Sadhana’s effects, she realizes how little she knew her sister in some respects. Though she was aware of her sister’s volunteer work, it is not until she is looking at her computer that Beena realizes how deeply she was involved in advocating for an Algerian refugee family on the verge of being deported. She also feels guilty about the fact that her sister’s body was not found for a week, despite her many friends in the city. If they had not been fighting, she might have noticed her absence sooner. Her sister’s diary is also nowhere to be found, depriving Beena of much-needed reassurance that she was not relapsing at the time of her death.
The two sisters are fully fledged and extremely well-realized characters, flawed and entirely, believably human. The complexity of the relationship between them can hardly be understated. After losing both their parents, they are responsible for one another in a way their uncle can never be. At the same time, in the absence of his father, they are in many senses co-parents to Quinn, even after Beena takes her son away with her to live in Ottawa, leaving Sadhana in Montreal.
Nawaz shifts smoothly back and forth through time, neatly weaving the two timelines together as we come to know the sisters. Their unusual childhood is counterpointed against the quiet, steady existence Beena has carved out for herself and her son in Ottawa. Yet despite this stability, she needs to make peace with her past in order to enter the next stage of her life. This means coping with the loss of her sister, and also finally owning up to the consequences of her long refusal to tell Quinn anything about his father.
Today on Canada Reads, each of the remaining four books was put on the hot seat, with a question about a perceived weakness. The Illegal came under fire for being set in an imaginary world, the significance of The Hero’s Walk being set in a another country was interrogated, the accessibility of Birdie as a path to reconciliation came into question, and the length and amount of detail in Bone and Bread was examined. Unfortunately, as the last question on the table, Bone and Bread got only five minutes of debate. Clara Hughes expressed that she found the length and amount of detail tedious, while Bruce Poon Tip observed that it felt like several novels rolled into one. Hughes wanted to see more of Sadhana, while Adam Copeland was interested in Quinn. Farah Mohamed defended, arguing that this is Beena’s story, and that the book takes the pages it needs to explore the complicated relationship between the sisters. Vinay Virmani didn’t have a chance to weigh in before time was up, but he still cast the first vote against Bone and Bread. With the exception of defender Farah Mohamed, who voted against Birdie, it was a unanimous vote against Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel.
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