It is awkward to write about a novel when one is not a literary critic. The task is all the more daunting, given that unlike Tahmima Anam's first two books, which were easy for us to identify with (the first was really “our” story of the liberation war, the second dealt with issues, characters, and a milieu that are very familiar to all of us), the third is quite different in setting and tone.
Indeed, Bones of Grace is Anam's most complex project, her most ambitious and most autonomous work till date. Here she is no longer tethered to a historical phenomenon we have experienced collectively, or a social/cultural space we had once inhabited together. True, in this book her ties to that past provide both continuity and context. But these shadows are fleeting and fraught, functioning more as props for the story rather than as drivers of the text.
Bones of Grace is also an archeology of the past, but here the quest is neither political nor social, but deeply, fiercely, single-mindedly personal. As an adopted child Zubaida, the protagonist of the story, is searching for herself, her own origins and identity. In the process of that discovery she realizes that she has become a composite of the music of Nina Simone, which she enjoys with Elijah Strong, a young American with whom she falls in love; the carcass of Grace, a ship being torn apart in Chittagong; the bones of Diane, the extinct whale she is hoping to piece together; and the genes of Meghna, her clue to her family history, all rolled into one.
The epistolary method used in writing the novel brings it both intimacy and immediacy. It can also be a bit messy at times, for there are periods of drift and mild confusion because the author has to speak for many people, tie many loose ends, and clarify much. But on the whole Bones of Grace holds together well. The fact that it does so is testimony to Anam's skill and resourcefulness as a story-teller since the episodes of the novel are located in such disparate worlds.
First, there is the rarefied world of Cambridge, where nerdy and driven Harvard kids sip lattes, go to Shostakovich concerts, and chatter knowingly about “stuff”, and where families, like that of Elijah, are part of the Boston Brahmin landscape, and where their members live comfortable, enlightened lives with a high tolerance for individualism and, even, quirkiness.
The second is the world of upper crusty Dhaka, defined by privilege, conspicuous consumption and refined tastes, where the women wear brocades and silks, the men play golf, the China on the table is fine and delicate, and where there is an army of (mostly invisible) domestic workers who cater to their needs and whims.
The third is the grim and grimy world of ship breakers in Chittagong-- lonely, desperate, hardene men (and an occasional child worker), living in dingy, suffocating environments, whose chief concern is to preserve their body parts so that they can return the next day to the dangerous and grisly chore of taking apart a ship till it disappears into nothingness.
And finally, there is the world of Anwar, who had returned to his village, married, acquired some respect (thanks to some hush-money he had received after a co-worker's death in Dubai), appeared to have “made it”, but is tormented by his own inner demons to find the woman that he had so cruelly abandoned in the past.
All these worlds collide, collude, and collapse into the quest for uncovering the secret of Zubaida's identity. She does find some answers regarding her birth origins. But one of the appealing aspects of the book is that it is not framed as a detective story where the answer itself is the resolution. There is a closure of sorts, but it does not necessarily free her from her present, nor carve out new directions for her future. Identity is, obviously, more complicated than knowing your daddy's name!
There are other appealing aspects of Bones of Grace. First, it is the result of extensive research. Far too often we see writers taking “poetic license” in terms of their indifference to factual accuracy. While novels are inherently creative exercises they are, for the most part, situated within lived realities. If we have to take Zubaida seriously, we have to believe that she is a real paleontologist who speaks and acts like one, and when she goes to Chittagong, we must know that what she is describing is correct and realistic and recognizable. One does not have to be obsessive about “getting it right”(like James Joyce), but a good writer must be knowledgeable in order to be credible. In this regard, in spite of a few geographic lapses, Bones of Grace is impressive.
Second, the characters seem authentic. Anam gives them presence, voice, complexity. They do not fall into simplistic hero/villain or saint/slut binaries. Anwar is not necessarily very virtuous because he is searching to reclaim the lost love of his life and wants to make amends. Rashid, Zubaida's husband, is shallow and emotionally clueless but tries hard to understand her internal churnings. Elijah is charming, seductive and talented but maddeningly irresolute, and sometimes irresponsible. And even Zubaida herself, brave and beautiful and gifted can, at times, be passive-aggressive, self-absorbed and manipulative. The multi-dimensionality of the book's characters gives them fullness and authority.
But the final reason for Bones of Grace's success is the writerly abilities and the craftsmanship of the author, which often results in prose that is rich and vivid. She displays what T.S. Eliot called, “an auditory imagination,” instinctively knowing not only how the text will read, or what it will convey, but also how it will sound - its tone, its pitch, its timbre. For all of us who care about the beauty of language, about an apt word, a finely turned phrase, an elegant sentence, this book offers an embarrassment of riches.
At one level Bones of Grace is a deeply personal story of a woman torn between traditional norms and modern yearnings, between the guilt of infidelity and the bliss of romance, between gratitude for the pampered and caring life she has received and her frustration at not knowing her own incomplete history. It is also a story of people suffering capitalist exploitation, and the alienation and cruelties inherent in the process, but also of human compassion and resilience. Finally, it indicates how multiple markers – of geography, class, language, ethnicity, faith and so on – may define our uniqueness, but also how they intersect and overlap to create new hybrid realities, destinies and identities. This is a 21st century novel and bears the imprint of both its contradictions and its possibilities.
Ahrar Ahmad recently retired as a professor of political science. Currently, he is the director of Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Bidyapeeth.