Zubaida has made a mess of her life. Part of it is not her fault. The larger part of the miss, however, is very much her fault. In Tahmina Anam’s The Bones of Grace, we hear Zubaida explain what really happened to her lost love, Elijah, from a point several years after everything fell apart. Along the way, we learn more about her quest for an ancestral whale fossil, the aftermath of Bangladesh’s civil war, and ship breaking in Chittagong. The book is slow to begin, but I was racing through the pages at the end of the book to see what would happen to Zubaida.
One of the first things we learn about Zubaida is that she’s an orphan. Her family told her when she was nine, but they’ve never told her more than that. Though they were loving, the fact that Zubaida does not know where she comes from has haunted her her whole life. We also learn within a few pages that Zubaida is still in love with Elijah. This novel is directly addressed to him in an attempt to explain her behavior and why she pushed him away. Our narrator has a tendency to drift through time, giving the book a very conversational tone, but it follows a roughly chronological path.
Zubaida meets Elijah just a few days before she’s due to fly to Pakistan to participate in a dig for a fossil ancestral whale, a “missing link” species. In those few days, Zubaida and Elijah connect in a way she’s never experienced before. The fact that Zubaida is sort-of engaged already (to her childhood sweetheart, Rashid) is awkward, but not insurmountable. Zubaida and Elijah text each other Nina Simone song titles for days while the dig progresses. (Weirdly, this is not as pretentious as it sounds.) But Zubaida’s life takes a radical turn when Pakistani authorities shut down the dig. With nothing to do, Zubaida returns home to Dhaka.
Once in Dhaka, Zubaida is dragged back into her old life and her parents and future in-laws plans for her. She has nothing except a few days with Elijah to help her resist. For me, this is where the story got interesting. I felt for Zubaida as she is pulled into the undertow of family expectations. She might have been able to resist more effectively if she hadn’t been in such a muddle about Elijah, her whale, and her unknown heritage.
The Bones of Grace becomes even better when Zubaida takes a break from her marriage to assist with a project to film the lives of Chittagong ship breakers. The injustice and hardship of the ship breakers’ lives seems to wake Zubaida up. This part of the book also seemed the most real to me. It might be because Zubaida was in a fog, but the first half of the book seemed to drift as much as the narrator. The last half of the book is full of detail—sounds, sights, even smells—that I almost felt the heat of the beach.
Having people with worse problems that she can help is a catalyst for Zubaida. If she hadn’t been moved by the ship breakers, I probably would have tossed this book across the room and given up. I mentioned that Zubaida sounded a bit pretentious at the beginning of the book and some readers might continue to think so. My biggest problem with her at the beginning of the book was that Zubaida had a lot of the poor little rich girl about her. I could sympathize, but not that much, until Zubaida starts genuinely helping the ship breakers. Once she does this, Zubaida also realizes how untenable her own position is. I kept reading just to see what she would do about her messy, messy life.
The Bones of Grace is the third in a series of books by Anam set at various points in recent Bangladeshi history. I don’t think it’s that important to have read them before reading this book, even though some of the characters in those books are related to Zubaida. I got along just fine.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 28 June 2016.