Monday, May 27, 2013

Mondays on the Margins: Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz



Synopsis from Goodreads: Beena and Sadhana are sisters who share a bond that could only have been shaped by the most unusual of childhoods -- and by shared tragedy. Orphaned as teenagers, they have grown up under the exasperated watch of their Sikh uncle, who runs a bagel shop in Montreal's Hasidic community of Mile End. Together, they try to make sense of the rich, confusing brew of values, rituals, and beliefs that form their inheritance. Yet as they grow towards adulthood, their paths begin to diverge. Beena catches the attention of one of the "bagel boys" and finds herself pregnant at sixteen, while Sadhana drives herself to perfectionism and anorexia.

When we first meet the adult Beena, she is grappling with a fresh grief: Sadhana has died suddenly and strangely, her body lying undiscovered for a week before anyone realizes what has happened. Beena is left with a burden of guilt and an unsettled feeling about the circumstances of her sister's death, which she sets about to uncover. Her search stirs memories and opens wounds, threatening to undo the safe, orderly existence she has painstakingly created for herself and her son.

Heralded across Canada for the power and promise of her debut collection, Mother Superior, Nawaz proves with Bone and Bread that she is one of our most talented and unique storytellers.

Trish from Anansi sent me this book last month. I try not to read reviews of books before I review them, just  to avoid any predispositions, but I did accidentally catch a look at one in one of the newspapers we get that said there were large problems with the book. I have to go find the review again now, because I don't know what the reviewer was talking about. As an exploration of coming of age and family, the strange and mutable bonds between parents and children and between siblings, and also of the uneasy coexisting of different cultures in Canada, I think the book succeeds remarkably well. I started reading it at my daughter's softball game and once I did, it was really hard to concentrate on the game (which, to be fair, was not all that riveting).

The descriptions of the apartment over the bagel shop in Montreal are extremely vivid - the smell, the heat, the excitement of lying on their balcony listening to the conversation of the teenaged male employees - the 'bagel boys' -  on their breaks in the alley below. Their mother is a fascinating character - white enough that their Indian father's parents never approved of her, and yet exotic enough in her spiritual practices and careful way of living that she doesn't fit in seamlessly in urban Montreal either. The shock of losing her and having her replaced by "Uncle" - irascible, ruthlessly traditional, terminally disapproving - is sharply felt.

The harsh symmetry of when both sisters stop bleeding at the same time - Beena's period halted by teen-age pregnancy, Sadhana's by self-imposed starvation - is really striking. At times I was annoyed by Beena's martyrdom - the way she allows Sadhana to treat her like crap, the way she allows her own son, later, to blame her for Sadhana's illness and death - but not because it was unrealistic. Although she's only two years older, she gets pressed into the maternal role, which is monstrously unfair and yet completely believable, and Sadhana's illness makes her untouchable. It's possible that I also over-identify with the older sister - dutiful, perfectionist Beena - and might feel an excess of resentment on her behalf for the younger, prettier, more adventurous sister.

The framing story - Beena's effort to move on with her life after Sadhana's death, to forge a relationship with her son without Sadhana as an intermediary or an obstacle, and to open up to a new relationship with a decent man - is hopeful, sweet and satisfying.

Memorable Quotes:

-Mama didn't drink. She didn't smoke or eat meat. She awoke every day before dawn, had a cold shower, and did meditation and yoga for two hours. She didn't go shopping for clothes. She didn't hold grudges. She never once raised her voice to us that I can remember. She was holy."

- 'You really like [Ravi]?' said Sadhana one day, as though she was considering taking an interest. 'Yes,' I said. The truth was that I liked all of them. 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 her life to get started.


-The way parents and children slide from a physical relationship into something else, from contiguity to separation -- it's continental drift, and it feels just as slow and significant. It feels stable, and then there's an ocean between you. It doesn't feel wrong. There will be an opining up to the world for both of us. But there is a desire for fixity, too. A bit of grieving.


-Less than three weeks until Moving Day. Mama always said it was the separatists who set things up this way, the least system, everyone moving on the first of July and too busy to give a crap about Canada.


-Of all meals, breakfast the way it was served in a diner bore the least connection to anything we had grown up eating. It was nourishment without attachment, merciful food. Every piece of bacon was like starting over as someone else.


-I thought that this was sometimes why people had children, to send a little part of themselves out into places they wouldn't ordinarily go. Like casting a line. A new trajectory.





2 comments:

Nicole said...

Making a note to read this book. It sounds like something I would enjoy.

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

Sounds good...though possibly not something I'd enjoy - though that may sound weird. I tend to get overly wrapped up in book characters sad stories and then I dwell on them so I need to be feeling pretty strong (mentally) to read something where everything goes to shit in a book.