Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2016

The Bones of Grace, by Tahmima Anam

The Bones of GraceI very nearly abandoned this book, more than once.  Only the fact that I had been so impressed by its predecessor The Good Muslim stayed my hand.  And now that I’m finished it, all 407 pages of it, I remain unconvinced that reading it was a good investment of my time.

The Bones of Grace is third in a trilogy, but in shifting the focus away from the post-war impact of the 1971 war of independence in Bangladesh, author Tahmima Anam seems to have lost her way and succumbed to writing an overwrought romance.  The book begins with a tedious rehash of a Boston love affair between a half-hearted palaeontologist called Zubaida Haque (who is adopted) and an American called Elijah Strong.   The narration is made even more irritating by the form chosen: almost all of this novel is Zubaida’s ‘older-and-wiser’ letter to this Elijah and she keeps addressing him by name.

Anyway, Zubaida goes off to a dig to find the fossils of a prehistoric whale (which she refers to incongruously as Diana).  This whale, the Latin name of which now escapes me, is supposed to prove a back-to-front evolution, i.e. that there were creatures in the fossil record that were land animals which then adapted to the sea.  This quest is, – yes, you guessed it – symbolic of Zubaida’s fossicking around on a quest to find herself, with the post-war identity of Bangladesh thrown in for good measure.

The dig goes wrong, and (as we knew it would) the fossil record remains undisturbed along with the bones of ‘Diana’.  Zubaida goes home to Dhaka in Bangladesh to marry her childhood sweetheart Rashid because that’s what the weight of parental expectations demand. But, surprise, surprise, she is discontented, and she ends up assisting a British activist to make a doco about the exploited workers of a shipwrecking business.  There the discovery of a piano is enough to rekindle her contact with Elijah, and he flies over to Bangladesh to play the piano inside the doomed ship.  (I’m not making this up).

(At one stage Zubaida, still writing her epistle to Elijah, shifts the narration a gear to allow a worker called Anwar to tell his story of degradation and despair in the first person. It’s a clumsy device but it is revealing about the human costs of development in countries like Bangladesh).

On the day I looked the population of Bangladesh was 156 million, but despite these odds, Zubaida meets up with people who lead her to the discovery of her identity.  Along the way she discovers insights about her adoptive parents (a freedom-fighter turned businessman and a human rights lawyer).   But the novel descends into soap opera when All is Revealed and my cynical heart makes me think that the fictional recipient of this dross might have thought himself well out of it.

The most annoying thing about the novel was that it seemed so western.  For all its evocative setting (mostly) in Bangladesh it was a novel preoccupied by the kind of navel-gazing that plagues western literature.  The central character is tortured by her origins, wasteful of an expensive education and a disappointment to her family. She can’t choose between two very nice men, and hurts them both.  She thinks a lot of thoughts about Bangledeshi ways that she despises, but she doesn’t articulate them.  When she’s having a meltdown she simply abandons people who were relying on her, and then feels guilty about what happens next.

I was very disappointed indeed.

Aamer Hussein at the Guardian found more to like than I did.

Author: Tahmima Anam
Title: The Bones of Grace
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355017
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: The Bones of Grace


Responses

  1. I always find it difficult abandoning books but it’s especially so when it’s part of a series – which reminds me, I still have Zola’s ‘Paris’ to read. :-)

    • I must get to those ones too, I really miss having Zola on standby!

  2. What a pity, Lisa. I was planning on reading the first two novels of Anam’s trilogy as they have garnered some positive press – The Golden Age in particular is now regarded as a classic of Bangladesh War literature. Does the third novel continue the story in any substantial way?

    • Don’t let me stop you, because although I haven’t read the first one, I have read The Good Muslim and I thought it was wonderful. I will still be looking out for No 1 myself … I think this one is just a case of an author running out of steam…

  3. I am sorry you didn’t like this book, Lisa. But I couldn’t stop laughing when I read your review :) Especially, when I read these lines –
    “There the discovery of a piano is enough to rekindle her contact with Elijah, and he flies over to Bangladesh to play the piano inside the doomed ship. (I’m not making this up.)” It seems like a scene straight out of an old Bollywood movie :)  So, thank you, for making me smile :) I am not going to read this one.

    • Hey, I never thought of that… maybe she wrote it with an eye to having it made into a Bollywood movie?

      • Ha, ha, ha! Maybe :) But Bollywood movies are different now. This is the kind of scene which was there in old Bollywood movies that I watched when I was a kid :)

        • We don’t get to see them so often here. But I have watched a couple lately, and I’ve really enjoyed them.


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