Bone and Bread is a novel about the bonds between family members, the tragic consequences to which these can lead, and the struggle of one woman to free herself from their burdens without abandoning those she loves. Following the life of Beena Singh and her sister Sadhana as they grapple with growing up amid successive tragedies, Nawaz’s debut novel asks what it means to come of age in Canada, to be different, and to be a woman in all its meanings: a daughter, a friend, a sister, a lover, a mother, and a working professional. It’s a thoughtful work that heralds the blossoming of a new literary talent.
The novel opens with Sadhana’s sudden death at 32 from complications related to anorexia. Then we are brought back to the girls’ early years to watch as the traumas leading to a life of disease (and, for Beena, of caregiving) pile up. First, their Indian father drops dead in his bagel shop when they are just a few years old. The sisters are then lovingly raised into their teens by their freethinking, hippie, American-Irish-Canadian mother. But when she chokes on a bone in a chicken dinner the girls have prepared, Beena and Sadhana are cast into a life of emotional free fall that each handles in her own way — with serious consequences for both.
Beena looks for love from the bagel boys working in the shop now run by their surly uncle, only to find herself pregnant and abandoned. Sadhana, meanwhile, stops eating. These two events will relegate Beena to a life of looking after others, and the novel’s main focus is on her efforts to cope with a sick sister and a young son (Quinn).
Indeed, the narrative is recounted entirely from Beena’s perspective, and so when the sisters grow and inevitably develop independent lives, the novel transforms from a tale of two young girls joined at the hip to one centred on Beena’s efforts to guard herself against the emotional pain her sister often inflicts (both verbally and through her brushes with starvation) while at the same time trying to maintain the bond they developed as children. With a son in tow and no outside support, this is a herculean task that Beena approaches with an honest mix of courage and timidity. She is a well-drawn, sympathetic character who seems like she has walked onto the page from real life. This, however, occasionally works against Nawaz when her protagonist shies time and again from life’s thorny problems — like her son’s wish to meet his father — and in so doing saps some of the plot’s energetic potential.
Nonetheless, with Beena at the helm of the narrative, we are offered a sensitive window on the extraordinary challenges of growing up orphaned, being a teen mother, and supporting a sibling who frequently flirts with death. Beena also faces the universal trials of being a not-too-pretty, not-too-sporty, not-too-brilliant teenager trying to find a place for herself in an often cruel and blithe world. Nawaz’s exploration of Beena’s journey to adulthood is a treat that’s bound to resonate with a wide audience. This intimate, first-person account of her experiences means, however, that readers have no access to the inner lives of the other characters. This sometimes leaves Sadhana and Quinn’s emotional lives frustratingly off limits.
Set largely in an apartment above a Montreal bagel shop — the novel is domestically focused, and most scenes take place in the girls’ home — the world of the Singh girls is beautifully rendered and instantly familiar to those who’ve walked the streets of Quebec’s great city. Although the narrative is firmly anchored in Beena’s inner life, Nawaz succeeds in capturing something of the Montreal soul, which is a pleasure to read. The same goes for Ottawa, although the story only moves there belatedly when Beena distances herself from Sadhana’s illness and buys a bungalow west of Centretown.
Nawaz is a talented prose stylist with a fluid voice. Barring the rare awkward adjective or simile, her sentences are precise, vivid, and warm. And like the writing itself, the story has the charm to keep readers turning pages. Even if it meanders occasionally, Bone and Bread always returns to the core question of how Beena struggles to find love and define responsibility in very challenging circumstances. It’s a question well worth reading about.
(Read Saleema’s response to my review here.)
Thanks to House of Anansi Press for a review copy of this title.