Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam succeeds on the most objective level in that it made me want to read Anam’s other books, The Golden Age and The Good Muslim. It is a narrated by Zubaidah Haque, a Bangladeshi woman who grew up with relative privilege. She attended college in the US, studied paleontology and when the book opens, is about to leave for a dig in Baluchistan, Pakistan, to search for ambulocetus, the walking whale, a transitional creature of the land and sea. The symbolism is obvious, as she is a transitional woman, both Bangladeshi and Western. She is also torn between her passionate love for Elijah whom she met just as she was preparing to leave Harvard for the dig and her comfortable and expected love for Rashid, her childhood friend and sweetheart to whom she is engaged.
Although Zubaidah chooses duty and family, she also feels alienated and alone, obsessed with the knowledge that she was adopted. That she has no one of her own blood. She wants to find her mother, but no one will tell her anything. She is unhappy and takes a job translating and helping a documentarian who is doing a film about the shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh. This got me looking into the National Geographic article that Gabriela, the documentarian read and was inspired by. This was fascinating and, of course, was a vehicle to advance the story, bringing together Zubaidah, Rashid, Elijah and the secrets of her past.
I liked Bones of Grace, but I did not love it. I thought her love for Elijah was sort of unreal. Sure, people do fall in love at first sight and it can be passionate and heartfelt, but the love story felt sort of false, a construct necessary to create a conflict. While I loved that they wrote each other texts in Nina Simone song titles, Elijah was too much of a counterpoint to Rashid, I think. Anam was much more believable writing about the marriage to Rashid and their relationship. I appreciated that she resisted the impulse to make him a bad husband.
The real villain, if there is one, is Zubaidah herself. She is type of character who drives me nuts, who decides by not deciding, who goes along to get along, and then wallows in misery. Of course, if she had been honest, true to herself, she would have acted differently and there would have been no story. That’s the problem for readers like me, the characters we like, the ones who talk to people and say what they think and speak up for themselves just don’t end up in these travails of being married to someone they like while pining for someone they love.
However, the story has many fascinating elements. For example, Zee’s parents were freedom fighters whose nostalgia for their glory days frustrates her a bit. It reminds me of people of my generation and how we get tired of hearing about people from the Sixties waxing nostalgic for their activism. That is so realistic and human, the faint envy of missing out on greatness, of the opportunity to be challenged to greatness.
I also appreciate that Bones of Grace presents a complex Bangladesh. Yes, there is extreme poverty. Yes, life is hard for the poor and even harder for poor women. But there is a middle class, an entrepreneurial class, women who are educated. They are not wearing burkas and they are working. Zee’s mother is working to prosecute war criminals. Her mother’s friend is working for labor rights for workers. Because Anam is Bangladeshi, she is capable of capturing the contradictions and complexity of her country. She loves Bangladesh and it, perhaps more than anything else, is the real rival for her love, not Rashid.
I received an advance copy for review from publishers via the GoodReads Giveaways program.