Tahmima Anam’s most recent novel, The Bones of Grace, completes her trilogy about Bangladesh, the first two books of which were received with a genuine measure of praise and acclaim by many critics. However, this book reads well as a standalone novel and readers will not necessarily feel the need to peruse its precursors.
Anam’s main protagonist, Zubaida Haque, is a young female palaeontologist whose Harvard education instils in her a serious passion for prehistoric creatures such as the Ambulocetus, the amphibian ancestor of the present-day whale that allegedly traversed both land and sea as far back as 50 million years ago. Though having a doctorate in anthropology, Anam infuses her novel with a deep respect for ancient life and its origins; her writing on this topic resonates with admirable authenticity. Zubaida recounts how she embarks on a journey that takes her from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Dera Bugti, Pakistan, in order to literally unearth the skeleton of a prehistoric amphibian whom her team affectionately christens “Diana.”
The excavation is hastily terminated by the unwelcome yet determined decree of the Pakistan military, and a frustrated Zubaida eventually ends up in her hometown of Dhaka, Bangladesh, facing the tepid prospect of marrying her childhood friend Rashid. The entire narrative is written in the first person, more specifically in the form of an extended epistle to Zubaida’s true love, an American named Elijah Strong. Embedded within the matrix of Zubaida’s feelings for Elijah lies a desire to discover who her true parents are — she was adopted in infancy by a virtuous Bangladeshi couple whose main concerns in life remain their daughter and the war-torn politics of their homeland. Given how strong-willed and spirited the heroine is, it comes as no surprise that her marriage to the wealthy — but slightly vacuous — Rashid leaves her feeling trapped. Recovering physically and emotionally from an early miscarriage, she moves temporarily to Chittagong and attempts to help an American woman, Gabriela, with a documentary on underprivileged workers that are part of the ship-breaking industry.
Though written with sincerity, this novel is unable to dig deep enough
Zubaida’s ‘princess’ Diana is thus replaced by ‘princess’ Grace; a handsome ship that has been decommissioned because persistent bad luck appears to haunt it. While the harbour of Chittagong is a far cry from Dera Bugti’s deserts, Grace’s “bones” end up mattering almost as much to Zubaida as Diana’s did. It is at this juncture — midway through the novel — that the heroine’s story intersects with that of Anwar, a ship-breaking labourer whose obsessive aim in life is to locate his lost love. Anam breaks Zubaida’s narrative rather abruptly in order to insert the lengthy, albeit sporadically interesting, account of how Anwar abandoned a young woman named Megna in order to make money in Dubai. Anwar’s story takes on decidedly Dickensian undertones as he leaves Dubai in a dramatic turn of events, returns to Bangladesh, and embarks on an emotional rollercoaster quest for Megna. Towards the latter portion of the novel Zubaida finds answers to many personal questions, and the novel comes to a fairly satisfactory conclusion, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the bittersweet nature of its outcome.
Bones of Grace is a busy book. At times it comes across, on a metaphoric level, as a linguistic mall with many varied shops, or a crammed apartment building where sundry narratives and dramas are played out. Zubaida falls in love with someone, marries someone else, works on Diana, works in the vicinity of Grace, deals with stifling in-laws, deals with her parents’ decision to adopt a pauper’s child, experiences numerous conflicts regarding both her career as well as her marriage, and suffers from extended culture shock, all within the realm of 400 pages. The result: a dynamic but convoluted portrait in the words of a modern woman who straddles the East and the West repeatedly, but not always successfully.
While it would be presumptuous to assume that the heroine represents an alter ego of the novelist, the book frequently appears to follow, even if only half-consciously, the 19th-century tradition of long, quasi-autobiographical novels with strong female protagonists. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. However, the work does suffer from a certain unevenness that stems from far too little attention being given to some topics, and far too much to others. Such unevenness is not as noticeable in classic texts that spread the action and plot over a more extended literary canvas.
For instance, Anwar’s story would not have suffered from being truncated, and the novel would have been considerably enhanced by a more detailed explication of Megna’s adventures (wretched though they might have been). Rashid’s character is never fully developed, and that of Elijah is so elusive that at times it appears as if Zubaida is more in love with the idea of being in love with him. The heroine’s rather childish self-absorption borders on tiresome at best and downright painful at worst. Though she rebels against the constraints of wealthy society, she all too often emerges as little more than a spoilt rich kid.
What we do know is that the whale was first a coyote, then a water-curious amphibian, and, finally, the creature that would rule the seas and become the stuff of our myths, our ocean-totems, our outstanding beast, the one who reminds us that long before our time, beings were made on a grander scale, their bones as big as cities. The whale is the fragment of that grandeur, of life writ on a canvas so large it is almost beyond the imagination. And for this to have happened, a transgression had to be committed, an abandonment of limbs, an adventure into water, and the courage to bid farewell to the past, whatever such voyaging may have cost, whatever longings and loves were left behind in the rubble.— Excerpt from the book
To be fair, however, there are several memorable minor characters that move the plot along at a rapid pace, thereby sustaining the reader’s interest. These include Zubaida’s frivolous but inherently matriarchal mother-in-law, Dolly; her two grandmothers; her working partners at both the Diana and Grace sites; her closest female friends; and her slyly overbearing sister-in-law, Ruby. If one is looking for a bicultural novel that is both sincere and engaging one may certainly immerse oneself in a copy of Anam’s most recent book, which makes for entertaining reading on many counts. But the reader who wishes to be challenged by something more knowledgeable and engrossing had better look elsewhere. This is a shame because given Anam’s personally erudite background one wishes she had not abandoned her excavation of Diana’s bones quite so abruptly. Perhaps she can revisit such enticing themes and concerns in a future text that will hopefully be less bogged down by personal, historical and political machinations, not to mention narcissistic heroines.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
The Bones of Grace
By Tahmima Anam
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 30th, 2017