I heard Saleema Nawaz read a portion of Bone and Bread at The Festival of Literary Diversity. I almost bought the book there because Nawaz was such a good reader. Silly me though, I’d already bought it on Kobo!
Beena is grappling with the sudden and strange death of her sister Sadhana, whose body was left a week before anyone realized what happened. Left with guilt and uncertainty, Beena has the task of clearing out her sister’s apartment.
As she goes through Sadhana’s belongings and tries to uncover the circumstances of her death, memories stir. Memories of her parents’ deaths and being teenagers in Montreal’s Mile End, of getting pregnant at sixteen and caring for Sadhana while she struggled with anorexia.
As old pains return, Beena struggles to connect with her teenage son and to keep the life she’s created for them both in order.
Let’s get into it…
Bone and Bread, like The Conjoined, is about relationships. Beena’s life has not been easy, and her struggles affect her relationships greatly. Being orphaned as teenagers, Beena and Sadhana were forced to fend for themselves early – despite their uncle’s guardianship. They are close, but Beena vacillates between the role of sister/friend and caregiver when it comes to Sadhana. I think this a really interesting dynamic to explore, especially since Beena has her son to care for as well. Resentment and guilt abound.
They dynamic between the two sisters also plays into Beena’s relationship with her son. Quinn had enlisted Sahana’s help in finding his father. But Beena doesn’t want to have anything to do with the bagel boy who left her once she got pregnant. On top of that, Quinn is getting ready for university and Beena is learning he’s becoming an independent young man.
Finally, stepping into the midst of all this family drama, is Beena’s new boyfriend, a younger man who she’s hesitant to open up to.
The characters in this novel live complicated lives. They aren’t perfect, and the decisions they make concerning one another aren’t always easy or even right. Yet, despite all the complicated interpersonal matters, the story is always clear that there is love between the characters.
Culture also plays a big role in Bone and Bread. The girls were raised in a mix of values, rituals, and beliefs. Their uncle is Sikh and has very traditional views on how the girls should behave. Their childhood apartment is in a Hasidic community in Montreal (a city known for the mix of French and English). Together, the sisters try to make sense of this blend of cultures, shining light on what it’s like to be mixed race Canadians. (Both sisters also interact with a refugee family, furthering themes of race and immigration in the novel).
Of course, the novel also deals with mental health. Since the story is told from Beena’s point of view, we don’t get a first hand account of anxiety and anorexia. But Beena’s struggle to care for herself and her son while also making sure her sister stays healthy is one that shows how difficult it is to put yourself first when you want to help. It’s sad and sometimes frustrating to see how the sisters fail one another, but I think it’s an important narrative.
The last thing I want to tell you all about is Nawaz’ writing. Her descriptions are wonderful. The worlds she creates within the girls homes are vivid and unique. I have not spent a lot of time in Montreal, but Nawaz makes it feel familiar. I also really enjoyed that some of the novel was set in my own city, Ottawa.
Nawaz ties together the various themes and settings in this novel expertly, proving that she’s got a unique talent. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
Final thoughts: Bone and Bread is a heartfelt story of the strain and love between sisters, told with the masterful and vivid prose of Saleema Nawaz.