BookBrowse Reviews The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam

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The Bones of Grace

by Tahmima Anam

The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam X
The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2016, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2017, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Claire McAlpine

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A modern love story about belonging, migration, tragedy, survival, and the mysteries of origins.

The Bones of Grace completes Tahmima Anam's Bangladesh trilogy. The three novels, which can be be read independently or together, illustrate, through the compelling storytelling and adept characterization of three female family members over successive generations, how historical events impacted their lives and their place in the social fabric of Dhaka and Chittagong since Bangladesh's independence from West Pakistan in 1971.

Anam's first book, A Golden Age, narrated events surrounding the war of independence in 1971 through the eyes of Rehana, a young widow and mother of Maya. In The Good Muslim, the narrative shifted to Maya, dissecting the disappointments of living in the aftermath of war, the struggle to find meaning, and the need to take action. Now, in The Bones of Grace, Anam moves from a more traditional third person storytelling point of view into an intimate, somewhat neurotic, second person monologue style. Zubaida, the third generation of this family, is alone in Cambridge, Massachussets narrating an elongated apology to her former lover Elijah, a man we understand she lost. And as her apology unfolds, she reveals why.

This might sound like a love story, but because the second person narrative is a pronounced and unique form, it does not rest exclusively in that genre. Anam's choice reminded me of Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence, because of its similar obsessive love, though she gives her readers more of an engaging storyline to balance the overly long confession. She switches the narrative to Anwar (told in the first person), a mysterious character she alludes to periodically until he is given a voice to tell his story. But by primarily using the second person "you" form, Anam successfully draws the reader into experiencing her characters' struggles, evoking a more intense reading.

The Bones of Grace is rich with metaphor. Zubaida is a marine paleontologist, studying the evolution of Ambulocetus, the so-called "walking whale." (See Beyond the Book.) She is passionate about putting together the bones of the creature they've named Diana, and to learn more about how this evolutionary metamorphosis occurred, a symbol of the mystery surrounding her own transformation.

After things turn for the worse at the dig, the fossil is abandoned and Zubaida returns to Dhaka to fulfill family expectations and marry the boy she's known most of her life. She does this despite a recent encounter with Elijah, which has cast doubts in her mind but has also raised the deeper issue of her adoption. Rather than face these issues and the people involved, she accepts a job making a film about the ship-breakers of Chittagong, beaches that are the graveyards of decommissioned liners, an environment with safety issues, full of men with tragic stories.

Just as Anam uses the reconstruction of the whale fossil to explore Zubaida's attempt to put together her own past, she uses the ship-breaking and reconstructing of the luxury liner Grace as an ironic tragedy; to show that our human attempts to put pieces together and solve mysteries often, unfortunately, fail to succeed. Certain mysteries about life remain just that, mysteries.

Anam writes an engaging, thought provoking story that portrays a contemporary family experience in Bangladesh; one that examines the issue of identity and living between east and western cultures. Anam's intimate style pulls the reader deep into the mind of Zubaida. For some, her obsessive love will feel one-sided, as Elijah is a distant character, but, in the end, the novel's journey is Zubaida's alone.

Reviewed by Claire McAlpine

This review was originally published in August 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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