Car­pet ride takes ex­otic turns

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sharon Verghis

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.