Reading “The Bones of Grace,” Tahmima Anam’s new novel, you’ll be moved by the author’s portrayal of hollowed-out characters pining for that which would make them whole again, but you might also find yourself puzzling over the nature of their bereavement. Indeed, Anam often skimps on explanation in favor of plunging into someone’s obsessive quest for redemption.
Yet the emotions of characters Zubaida and Anwar, which she lays bare in prose at once raw and lyrical, will hook you by the heart and reel you in. A good thing, too, because otherwise you wouldn’t get to savor the way the author (finally) ties together their two story lines.
This novel is the final installment of a trilogy through which United Kingdom-based Anam weaves together the history of her native Bangladesh (which gained independence in 1971) and that of three generations of a fractious family. The trilogy concludes with a flourish; “The Bones of Grace” not only surpasses its muddled predecessor, “The Good Muslim,” but outdoes “A Golden Age,” despite the latter’s greater kinesis.
Here, a professionally ambitious yet fatalistic Zubaida forgoes passion with a former doctoral student at Harvard, where she’s pursuing a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, so as to return to Bangladesh. How could Zubaida take up with Elijah, when she’s supposed to marry childhood sweetheart Rashid?
More significantly, the young woman harbors a complex regarding the fact that she was adopted and knows nothing of her origins. For this reason, explains Zubaida, who narrates, “the idea of leaving Rashid was like the idea of leaving behind my childhood.” And with no “family tree that stretched back generations, I clung to every piece of my past.”
Zubaida’s stint with an archaeological dig in Pakistan dedicated to unearthing the skeleton of a dinosaur-era amphibious whale (an in-between creature much like our protagonist) makes for an unnecessary subplot. However, when the Pakistani army violently aborts the (authorized) project, a demoralized Zubaida heads back to Bangladesh, where she marries Rashid, yearns for Elijah, gets pregnant and has a miscarriage. This is where the author hits her stride.
To combat her depression, Zubaida takes a job. On a beach strewn with carcasses of ships bringing to mind “an apocalyptic future where everything was salvaged and half-broken,” she and floundering British filmmaker Gabriela document the lives of the impoverished laborers dismantling the vessels, including the gigantic decommissioned passenger cruise ship Grace.
When Elijah pops up, the intensity quotient soars. Also, Anam begins to nudge a grief-stricken Anwar, who narrates a portion of the story, toward Zubaida. This leads to a most unexpected and illuminating outcome. “He is a man,” Zubaida tells Elijah of Anwar, “who revealed to me the entire history of my being, and, having done so, released me from all the things I believed I couldn’t do, wasn’t entitled to, because my past was a mystery.”
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.
The Bones of Grace
By: Tahmima Anam.
Publisher: Harper, 411 pages, $25.99.