One epic love letter.
First Published: 19th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2016
Zubaida was studying in America when she met him: Elijah, a man she came to know for just a few days; she had to leave for Pakistan when her university department’s hopes of uncovering an ancient fossil were realised. But when the project came to an abrupt halt, Zubaida went back to her native Bangladesh and married her childhood friend, effectively bringing an end to her acquaintance with Elijah. Years later, after meeting and splitting from him again, she has chosen to tell him everything in a letter.
The Bones Of Grace is a somewhat epic story that also includes another story within the story. It’s the sort of book you’ll likely either love or hate (very difficult to rate!) but either way appreciate the background detailing.
What first strikes you is Anam’s writing – it’s sublime. There are no two ways about it. It’s the sort of writing that is so wonderful, so well put together, so constant, that it has a very real affect on the novel’s flaws. You won’t dismiss the flaws, but you will feel as though you want to dismiss them. But what’s interesting is that this isn’t necessarily Anam’s natural writing style, it’s all Zubaida – during the story within a story, where we hear directly from Anwar (and it’s just that Zubaida has included his words in her letter) the writing is very different. More… male, appropriately. (Anwar is a man looking for his past love who puts his search on hold when he runs out of money.) Zubaida’s words, the flow of her writing, does make up somewhat for what could be called a frustrating narrative.
And I could imagine almost every day of your childhood, because it would have been documented in films or on television – in that way, you had probably lived a deeply unremarkable life, had experiences without specificity, and that had bothered you, the way my own past grated at me. All the things that irrritated you were things that I longed for, and all the things you longed for were things I took for granted.
I want to tackle this narrative before moving forward (hopefully the above extract exudes the quality and how the narrative can be both beautiful in what it says and, to use a word from the extract, grating). Whether Zubaida is annoying is really up to you, your personality, and, likely, down to your own experience of love and heartbreak. That Anam has captured her particular tale in a very honest way is hard to dispute – I think we’ve all had times when we’ve realised we’re dwelling too much on something and need to stop discussing it, and that that doesn’t always mean we stop thinking about it – it’s just a case of whether you’re happy to spend 400 pages on it and, indeed, whether you believe in this woman, Zubaida, writing a 400 page letter of excuse and apology.
Of course without the number of pages, we wouldn’t have a novel, we’d have a pamphlet, a novella at most, so this is where the background and ship-breaking comes in.
“It’s a cruel industry. For years we’ve been working slowly, patiently with the owners. Suddenly she comes and tells us how terrible things are. A film isn’t going to change anything.”
Anam uses Zubaida to look at the end-of-life of ships, in this case a cruise ship. There is the time when the ship is created – overseas – and sets sail, multiple times – overseas – and then, when it’s deemed too old, it comes to Bangladesh where men work for little pay, breaking it into pieces to be sold on. Zubaida comes to the beach as a translator for a western reporter who is looking to make a film (and possibly press charges against the management). Through Zubaida, Anam shows the horrors of the situation – the lack of safety, the deaths, and the exposure to chemicals and other toxic ingredients the workers face. It’s a uniquely-realised story. The inclusion of Anwar’s story, in which he comes to work at a ship-breaking beach, adds to the level of detail involved.
Then there is the palaeontology. Zubaida’s passion is the study of the fossil of a walking whale – a creature that slowly evolved to live under water whilst other creatures evolved to live out of it. Her journey is set around her attempts to get access to the fossil, first overseas then through the removal and sending of the bones to America. The journey shows the conflict between work (the will to, in this case) and relationships. Anam is an anthropologist which means you get a lot of detailing, but her writer self stops it becoming too much.
Amidst this is Zubaida’s lifelong mental conflict – she was adopted, lives in a well-off family and her fiancé is rich, but she doesn’t know anything about her birth mother and starts to feel a need to know where she came from. This is where privilege and class enters, where the underlining of Zubaida’s poorer beginnings limits what there is for her to know. It’s there in the background when she begins to question, no matter what category the question comes under; her thoughts of love, duty, and Elijah are informed by her adoption. In meeting Elijah she finds herself thinking of things she’d never thought about before and quite possibly never would have otherwise, and family duty and a general lack of mental strength hold her back from taking it further. She has all this luxury in consequence of being with Rashid, she’s lucky, she shouldn’t be thinking of Elijah. But she is thinking of him.
And amidst this turmoil is a minor story – minor in how much time it takes up (it’s big in terms of real-world impact) – of war, of the effects of it and of war crimes coming to light. Zubaida’s mother has spent her years working towards justice. Her father’s work and business has been ethical. You see glimpses of the Bangladesh war.
Now the ‘twist’, if it can be called so, that you start to see when Anwar makes his entrance (because if a stranger becomes involved you know there’s got to be a connection somewhere), isn’t as predictable as you might first think. It’s quite likely you’ll guess correctly, and, yes, of course this part of the narrative could be considered a device because how likely is it that it’d all happen in real life and so on, but it’s a novel after all. The reveal is pretty satisfying – it won’t blow your socks off but it may well make up for any frustration you had been feeling due to the way Anam goes about it. Make no mistake – don’t go assuming the twist the main reason for the book. It’s not – the book is all about the journey, the writing, the history, the palaeontology, and the ship-breaking – but it does give it an extra lift.
The Bones Of Grace is a slow-paced book. There’s not really any action in it; certainly that it’s one long letter should suggest this as a possibility. It’s very much a literary book, an issues book, wherein the pleasure is in its bookish sensuality.
If you like the sound of that and if what’s heralded as good about it hits the right notes for you, it’s likely you’ll fall completely in love with it. If it doesn’t hit the right note, you’ll likely still appreciate it but it may take you a while to get through.