Carpet ride takes exotic turns
The Bones of Grace By Tahmima Anam Text Publishing, 411pp, $29.99
“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 myth … the whale is the fragment of that grandeur, of life writ on a canvas so large it is almost beyond 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 longing and loves were left behind in the rubble.”
Zubaida Haque is a bright young student from a privileged family in Bangladesh, studying marine paleontology at Harvard University. Her focus is Ambulocetus natans, the ancient walking whale that turned its back on land and became a marine animal. She’s about to embark on a field trip to Pakistan to excavate a fossil of the mammal when she falls in love with a fellow student — the dreamy Elijah, “a man with piano hands and the smell of cold weather on his collar”.
What follows in Tahmima Anam’s novel The Bones of Grace is a twisting, fantastical tale of fate, chance and opportunities missed as Zubaida chases the mystery of the whale — and the story of her roots as an adopted child to freedom-fighting parents — from Dera Bugti in Pakistan to upper-class Dhaka society to the surreal ship graveyards with their wretched armies of workers lining the Chittagong coast to the chilly autumnal landscapes of American Ivy League universities.
It’s an Anna Karenina- esque love story at its heart — will Elijah and Zee, as she’s known, end up together? — enclosed within a bigger tale of immigration, identity and family. Again and again, Zubaida asks, Who am I? How did I come to be here? She moves in a world of “amphibians … people in between, people who lived with some part of themselves in perpetual elsewhere”.
The Bones of Grace is the final instalment in a loose trilogy by Anam, a London-based anthropologist and novelist whose 2007 debut novel A Golden Age was winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book. Its sequel, The Good Muslim, was published in 2011 to international acclaim.
Anam’s chief strength as a novelist is her knack for richly detailed and peopled worlds. We move easily across thousands of kilometres, meeting a cast of diverse characters: doomed tribal warrior’s son Zamzam, street urchin Mo, coarse, foul-mouthed construction worker Anwar, working on twin 50-storey towers dubbed “Bride” and “Groom” in Dubai. The bulk of the tale unravels in Bangladesh, Anam’s homeland, and it this trouble-plagued country that inspires the best writing here.
Deftly sketched are the tragic realities of Bangladesh: entrenched poverty, famine, disastrous floodings and cyclones — a floundering nation “full of fatwas and poor people”, as one character quips. There is a strong social justice focus on the country’s execrable labour conditions, exemplified in the shipwrecking factories in Chittagong; Anam turns her eye, too, to the plight of exploited Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But just as revealing — and arguably more fascinating — is the window she provides into Bangladesh’s glittering underbelly, inhabited by the kinds of cosseted rich people you find all over the world from London to Singapore to Hong Kong. This is a world of lavish wedding trousseaus and gold Ferragamo stilettos, rooftop house pools and gold-trimmed plates, white baby grands and triple-string ruby necklaces, inhabited by the likes of the slightly monstrous Dolly, her Bluetooth earpiece-wearing husband Bulbul, and Zubaida’s circle of dopesmoking, jaded, jetsetting childhood friends with whom she unhappily mingles after an illadvised marriage to old boyfriend Rashid.
The prickly issue of religion is handled with an admirable scepticism. Zubaida’s liberal academic parents are atheists through and through; there is an amusing passage when Anam describes the increasing piety of a sanctimonious character, Molly, thus: “When someday her children got older and started taking drugs, or if she ever had a health scare, or her husband started fooling around, she would start peppering more of her speech with God words … then she would start praying conspicuously, tucking a mat under her arm whenever she went to a party, then maybe she would take a five-star holiday to Mecca, uploading photographs of herself smiling in a burka.”
From war crimes trials and Bangladesh’s brutal and bloody political birth — the 1971 war of independence casts a long shadow over this novel — to illicit affairs amid the dying hulks of ships, Anam has painted a vast, lively canvas.
But does it all hang together? As an overall work of fiction, perhaps not. It feels too fragmented and polyphonous. Individually, there are sections of brilliance, particularly in the story of Anwar and the grim shipwrecking scenes with their nightmarish, Hieronymus Bosch quality. But ultimately we are left wondering this: why should we care about these characters — the sooky, soft-centred Elijah in particular?
Perhaps The Bones of Grace works best as a travelogue: we are taken on a meandering carpet ride through some exotic and surprising places, and there’s much to be enjoyed in that.
Sharon Verghis is an arts journalist at The Australian.
Author Tahmima Anam