Tag Archives: novel

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Thank to Little, Brown for a review copy.

Hannah Kent’s début historical novel is set on the frigid farms of early 19th century Iceland. The courts have convicted Agnes Magnusdottir of murder. To save money, local authorities send her to a minor official’s farm. She works there with the family and awaits execution while a young priest attempts to guide her on the Lord’s path.

Her presence creates a scandal in the cold northern valley. Neighbours flock to the farm. Some are afraid while others are curious. Some hate Agnes while others, like Steina, the farm owner’s daughter, seek to befriend her. Still others, like Margret, the mistress of the house, slowly change their opinion of her in the months leading to her execution.

The priest, a nervous wreck named Toti, finds quoting psalms and lecturing on religion ineffective. It’s clear from the start Agnes isn’t interested in spiritual advice. More importantly, she doesn’t feel she’s done wrong. So instead of sermonizing, Toti lets her tell her story. In this way, the narrative of her life as an abandoned illegitimate child as an itinerant servant is interwoven with her life as a prisoner waiting execution.

Iceland’s last case of capital punishment inspires the novel. Agnes Magnusdottir was a real person, as were her victims, Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Ketilsson’s brother beheaded her on behalf of the state in 1830, and curious souls can still visit her grave. Kent, an Australian, has lived in Iceland, and she researched her narrative extensively. Yet the heart of the story — how Agnes felt in her last days — is speculative.

Kent’s writing is easy and evocative. She brings 19th century Iceland — with its houses of dusty sod, its frozen fields, and its rocky shores lined with seals — vividly to life. The social context is also fascinating. Denmark rules over the island, and most farmers rent land from absentee owners. Leaseholders hire farmhands and servants to supplement family labour, giving rise to distinct hierarchies — not to mention seasonal romances and conflicts.

The interesting topic, unusual setting, and pleasant writing make this a very enjoyable novel. Ultimately, however, the story fails to build effectively, and Kent’s skill with prose is not strong enough to make up for the narrative’s shortcomings. Enjoyment felt in reading the books first half slowly gives way to worry, and then boredom, as the climax one awaits never appears.

Burial Rites suffers from the ‘premise problem’ — a frequent malady of début writers. It goes like this. You think of a great premise for a book — ‘The last woman executed in Iceland awaits her death at cold northern farm’ — and then, with little further development, you begin to write.

A premise is not a story. It doesn’t involve narrating change, but describing a situation. And that’s what Burial Rites reads like. A long description.

Agnes changes little throughout the novel. In the ‘Author’s Note,’ Kent states she aimed to paint a complex picture of her. She does this effectively, portraying her as much more than a murderess.

But she does nothing else with her. Agnes simply waits at the farm for her death, and then she dies. She is a helpless protagonist reduced to watching other people act and not acting herself.

Hers is a tragic story worth telling. Yet it doesn’t have the momentum to bear 300 pages of text. Combined with a few bumps in the writing — ‘quickly’ and ‘immediately’ shouldn’t appear on the same line; ‘approach’ shouldn’t be used twice in one sentence — and the book is disappointing.

Of course, this critique is set against the massive marketing machine that has promoted Burial Rites to the far corners of the earth. Go into your local bookstore and you’ll probably see it on the front table. It’s not that the book is bad, just that it doesn’t live up to the hype.

Despite its flaws, Burial Rites remains a solid début from a promising new voice. The narrative could use more drive, and its lead characters more development. Nonetheless, it offers a beautiful portrait of a little-known time and place, and a touching profile of a condemned woman who is more victim than perpetrator.

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?

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The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.

Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

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Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini's 'And the Mountains Echoed.'

Thanks to Penguin for a review copy of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘And the Mountains Echoed.’

In some ways And the Mountains Echoed reflects Khaled Hosseini’s previous novels. Like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, it’s set in Afghanistan — though not exclusively. Like them its title draws from a poem. And like them it’s an earnest, sentimental work that seeks to educate.

But in other respects it’s different. And the Mountains Echoed is of far broader scope than Hosseini’s earlier work. It features a bevy of characters and a slew of plot lines. It moves from Afghanistan to Athens to California to Paris and back. It’s not just about Afghans but those who’ve been drawn to their country since the Taliban’s fall: surgeons, nurses, and aid workers.

The themes it touches on are many. Property theft spawned by the refugee crisis. Pain caused by Afghans settled in the West who come to Kabul and make promises they can’t keep. The rebirth of mujahideen leaders as opium lords. Homosexuality and women’s rights in Amanullah Khan’s reformist era. Domestic violence. The current medical crisis. The heroism of foreign doctors who devote their lives to Afghans. The trauma of fractured families. The question of filial duty. The quest for meaning, and the fear of freedom to search for it.

These are weighty ideas, each worth considering. But there are too many of them.

I laud Hosseini’s intentions. He clearly has much to say about his home country. Sometimes, however, less is more.

The virtues of a sharp focus were manifest in his earlier novels. The Kite Runner was about a man searching for his childhood friend. A Thousand Splendid Suns was about two generations of women who suffered through war and patriarchy. And the Mountains Echoed, however, is harder to sum up.

But here’s an attempt. In the 1950s an Afghan peasant, Saboor, is persuaded to give up his baby daughter, Pari, to a wealthy family, the Wahdatis. Pari winds up in France, unaware of her true origins, while her brother, Abdullah, suffers trauma from the separation. Abdullah eventually immigrates to California and runs a kabob house. The siblings aren’t reunited until half a century later when Abdullah’s mind has been ravaged by senility.

A Greek plastic surgeon, Markos Varvaris, comes to Kabul on a short stint in 2002 and decides to settle there after years of globetrotting. He is offered accommodation in the house of the Wahdatis– though the family is dead and only the servant who arranged the adoption, Nabi, remains. A couple of California-based Afghans, Idris and Tabur, go to Kabul to claim the property their father abandoned years before, and they bump into the Varvaris and Nabi. It turns out they lived on the same street as Nabi in their youth.

When Nabi dies he requests Varvaris to find Pari, reveal her true origins, and give her the house he left her in his will. Varvaris finds her online and unveils the truth of her birth family. This allows her to eventually track down her brother in California.

If the story’s ultimate direction isn’t jumping out, that’s because it doesn’t in the book. There’s plenty to like in the novel, though. Hosseini draws beautiful portraits of his characters. Some — like the servant Nabi and the troubled poet Nila Wahdati — are memorable. But the book explores so many characters in such depth that the narrative grows muddled. For example, Varvaris’s main role in the story is to find Pari and reveal her family roots. Yet there’s a sixty-five-page chapter devoted to his childhood in the Greek Isles.

And it’s a great chapter — one of the best. But it doesn’t advance the core narrative. Instead it exemplifies how the book covers too much ground: its true aim is humanizing the foreign medical volunteers in Afghanistan.

That’s a great thing to do, and Hosseini has drawn great characters in Varvaris, his resolute mother, and his maimed cousin. But they barely connect to the rest of the novel. The result is a book that reads more as a series of snapshots of contemporary Afghanistan and not as a cogent story.

The same goes for a forty-page chapter on California brothers Idris and Timur who visit Kabul in 2003 to reclaim their father’s house. The only connection this pair have to the main story is that as children they lived on the same street as the Wahdatis. Their presence doesn’t further the plot at all. Rather they allow Hosseini to explore cultural insensitivity on the part of Westernized Afghans and to raise the plight of injured children. Again, these are important topics. But story-wise this is another dead-end.

Khaled Hosseini’s strength has always been narrative. His prose is adequate. But he is known for great stories, not great sentences. And in the absence of a story that’s lucid and driven, And the Mountains Echoed sags.

A short story collection would’ve better suited Hosseini’s purposes. With a number of subplots barely touching on the novel’s core, it almost reads like one already.

Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

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NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. (Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.)

NoViolet Bulawayo. We Need New Names. Little, Brown, 2013. $25.00 US. ISBN 9780316230810. Thanks to Little, Brown for a review copy of this book.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel follows the life of ten-year-old Darling, a Zimbabwean girl coming up as the country is going down. This precocious child, who used to live in what she might term a house-house with parents holding job-jobs, now lives in a tin-wrapped camp called Paradise. Her parents have left for the borders to find work, and so Darling roams free with her gang of young friends: Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina.

Because the schools are closed — the teachers have fled to South Africa seeking employment — Darling and her companions pass the time pilfering guavas from rich neighbourhoods and watching adults make their way in a divided world. Amusing themselves with games like “Find bin Laden” or bouts of play-lovemaking, these children betray an awareness of issues the adults consider serious, yet which Darling and her friends see as simple curiosities.

The genius of the book is in this juxtaposition: a wide range of social, political, and economic problems come to light in We Need New Names — the AIDS epidemic, patronizing NGO behaviour, political violence, and child sexual abuse, to name a few — yet these phenomena come in for matter-of-fact, humorous treatment by Darling and her gang. The way they discuss plans to abort the pregnancy of a pre-teen friend raped by an older family member is a case in point:

Today we’re getting rid of Chipo’s stomach once and for all. One, it makes it hard for us to play, and two, if we let her have the baby, she will just die. We heard the women talking yesterday about Nosizi, that short, light-skinned girl who took over MaDumane’s husband when MaDumane went to Namibia to be a housemaid. Nosizi is dead now, from giving birth. It kills like that. (80)

Darling’s world is one where playing games and dying in childbirth are both serious business. This youthful viewpoint provides both delightful insight into a child’s imagination and a poignant window on contemporary events in Zimbabwe. Considering the subject’s gravity, it was judicious of Bulawayo to enlist an irreverent ten-year-old as her narrator. This allowed her to craft a story that speaks in equal measure to joy and sorrow, richness and poverty, hope and destruction — themes that resonate with her birth country’s current dispensation.

In this regard, We Need New Names is a book that rails against popular representations of Zimbabwe — even if Bulawayo’s acknowledgement of every last African stereotype risks giving them new life. The book strikes back at the purely negative and show that the land north of the Limpopo River is rich with contradictions and full of beauty, just like, for example, “the USA, which is a country-country” (51). Bulawayo gives Zimbabwe depth, undermining those who invoke it as a tired cliché of darkness that’s older than Conrad. The novel’s closing paragraph, in which Darling chases a friend’s dog in a round of “Find bin Laden” only to witness a bread truck run it over, encapsulates this blend of joy and pain, loss and plenty:

There was red on the road. Two gaping furrows where the tires had plowed into the earth. An unsounded yelp drowned in the hollow of a twisted throat. White fur, red streaks in some places, like somebody clumsy had tried to decorate. Big, bared teeth. Crushed meat. Long pink tongue licking the earth. A lone paw raised in a perfect high-five. Bone jutting from the side of the stomach. One eye popped out (I could not see the other). And the delicious, delicious smell of Lobels bread. (292)

But the novel’s duality is not limited to Darling’s life in Zimbabwe. Halfway through the book she is abruptly taken to live in “Destroyedmichygan” with her Aunt Fostalina. Here the narrative takes a new course, centering on the challenges of life as an undocumented African teen in the United States. In this section, too, the book invokes stark contrasts. America is characterized by cold weather, abundance, and isolation: the opposite of Darling’s life in Paradise. Children don’t ask their parents for stories; they Google. They don’t invent games together; they play Xbox. They don’t lift guavas from local trees; they watch Redtube in the basement when their relatives are off doing shiftwork.

This latter part of the book is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s replete with tragic scenarios that brilliantly lampoon the objectification faced by African migrants on a daily basis (a woman corners Darling in a washroom and asks: “Are you from Africa too?… Can you say something in your language?… Isn’t that beautiful?… Africa is beautiful… But isn’t it terrible what’s happening in the Congo? Just awful….” (177-178)).

On the other hand, however, the back half of the novel ranges on more mundane territory. A child’s perspective on contemporary life in Zimbabwe is new, and in Bulawayo’s hands the material dazzles. The immigrant experience in America, however, is less innovative as subject matter. That’s not to say it should be neglected, or that the American side of We Need New Names isn’t worth reading. Bulawayo’s voice is fresh; fiction-lovers should take note, regardless of their stake in African affairs. But the dramatic shift in Darling’s circumstances at the novel’s midpoint creates an unsettling rift in the narrative.

In a way, this works because it emulates the abrupt shifts migration entails. Yet it also leaves one longing for cohesion. As it stands, the book isn’t about Darling’s immigrant experiences per se, nor is it about her childhood under ZANU-PF rule. It’s an even split. Granted, it’s one that reflects real life. But life often lacks the unity a cogent novel demands.

Yet regardless of the story’s bifurcation, We Need New Names is a bracing read. Darling is a feisty, funny, freethinking protagonist with sharp insights on Zimbabwe and America, childhood and growing up. The book is equal parts mirth and mishap, and it confirms the 2011 Caine Prize winner as a vigorous new force in literature.

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

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NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

NW by Zadie Smith. 2012. $32. 294 pp. (Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for a review copy of this work.)

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, takes its name from the postal code for northwest London where the novel is set, and where Smith herself grew up. This part of London is a fragmented world, one where stark differences define the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants  — poverty against riches, black against white, law school graduates against crack-addicted criminals. The writing here, virtuosic as ever, reflects this fragmentation. It paints an off-kilter and open-ended portrait of its two protagonists, Keisha/Natalie Blake and Leah Hanwell, as they struggle to find success and happiness without knowing exactly what either of these are.

The narrative follows these two girls from birth into their mid-thirties, when these women are themselves facing the decision of whether to have children of their own. As children they are best friends, but as they age their divergent personalities and social circumstances take them in different directions.

Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie after high school in order to better fit into the upper-class world she enters via law school and a rich husband, is a high-achiever who pulls herself from the margins of London into its chic centre, only to wonder whether she wants to be there at all.

Leah is a more freewheeling person and follows the opposite path in many ways. While she too has a university education, instead of leveraging it for all the social and financial capital it’s worth, she works at a job in her home neighbourhood that doesn’t require her to have a degree. Indeed, she’s the only person there who has one. And unlike Natalie, whose romantic life develops along conservative lines, Leah’s sexual world is more chaotic and experimental, full of flings and lust and anal sex. In this way, the two women reflect two fundamental approaches to life on the socioeconomic edge: hunker down and work your ass off for a “good future,” or take things as they come and avoid the anxieties about the future by enjoying life in the present.

Yet despite these divergent life trajectories, the women find themselves facing remarkably similar existential problems as they exit youth and approach their years of critical fertility. Both are anxious about the prospect of children and about their ticking biological clocks. Both find themselves in good circumstances by common standards — they have loving partners, and while Leah isn’t as wealthy as Natalie, she and her husband enjoy a decent standard of living.

And yet they both find themselves railing against the passage of time, and finding life to be a confusing series of events that moves along too fast. By her early thirties Natalie has “made it” in life, but all the same she has little idea of who she is and what she really wants. Leah is also facing an existential crisis, and wonders why it is that people like her and Natalie should lead successful lives while childhood friends should wind up as drug-addled street thugs.

If this all strikes you as true to life but lacking the typical trappings of a story — namely, protagonists with clear problems who are altered by the forces against which they struggle until their problems are resolved for better or worse — you’d be right. NW displays all the anxieties of modern society — just like its protagonists, who experience life as an ambiguous, open-ended business, the story in Smith’s latest effort equally lacks forward momentum. This is because the characters who populate this pocket of London don’t know where forward is; their world is disorienting. As soon as they get where they’re going (often following normative pathways like graduating from law school or getting married), they find they’re not sure they even want the benefits they’re set to reap. And never mind what they’re striving for — just exactly who are they, anyway? And what’s this existence all for, and why is it so unfair, and why is time so unrelenting? Yes, NW is that kind of book.

And in that respect it’s brilliant. If you’re looking for 300 pages of incisive commentary on the psychological problems plaguing contemporary urbanites who grew up in economically depressed neighbourhoods, this is it. But don’t expect closure, don’t wait for build-ups to produce payoffs. Entire subplots are literally dead ends — the subprotagonists simply die, never claiming an important place in the narrative or contributing to the main story in any supratangential fashion (even if a fifth of the book is devoted to them).

Such narrative nebulae notwithstanding, NW is an entertaining and moving book. Keisha and Leah are incredibly well-drawn, and the unusual techniques Smith uses to bring them to life (including a fair bit of concrete poetry) are compelling and innovative.

That being said, at times Smith’s experimentation goes off the rails and staggers toward opacity. The first 85 pages (in the section entitled “Visitation”) are the worst offender in this regard. Here readers face an uphill battle against unattributed dialogue, conversations starting mid-sentence, and a deluge of fragments. But those intrepid readers who make it into the novel’s second section will be rewarded for their labours with writing that remains edgy while having the added feature of being comprehensible. The remainder of the book is a pleasure to read, and powerfully animates a corner of London heretofore neglected in literature in a style that is challenging but not burdensome.

The highlight of NW comes in the second half, in a section entitled “Host,” which comprises 185 numbered vignettes spanning 110 pages. These short pieces, which chronicle the life of Keisha Blake from birth to childbearing to marital meltdown, operate like a photo album. As they are generally less than a page long, each is like a snapshot of a moment in time — 185 windows onto key experiences in a young woman’s life. This section, to speak plainly, kicks ass. It’s incisive, heartfelt, funny, and distinctive. Indeed, this part of the novel is what elicited many readers’ interest in NW in the first place, as it was featured in condensed form in The New Yorker in July 2012, and is an exceptional stand-alone piece that figures among the best published by the magazine in recent years.

“Host” is all the more a treat to be savoured as the rest of the book is composed in very different styles, the whole text being marked by a haphazard eclecticism. Indeed, in an interview Smith noted NW was written without a plan and was conceived “as a collection of found items.” This is consonant with the reading experience, which lacks the coherence expected in a novel, and instead comes across as an impeccably drawn series of short pieces on Keisha and Leah’s inner lives.

In the end, NW is a difficult work to pin down. Readers who make it to the end will likely be amazed, frustrated, touched, and disappointed all at once. For those devoted to language and how form and sentence structure can be reconfigured to chart the unexplored corners of experience, NW is a lesson you can’t afford to skip. Anyone concerned with the struggle of women to make sense of their professional, sexual, and familial lives on the margins of a big city like London will want to pick this book up immediately. Those, on the other hand, who are expecting the familiar novelistic package of rising action-climax-denouement might want to stick to White Teeth.

Review: Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

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Saleema Nawaz. 'Bone and Bread'. House of Anansi Press, 2013. $22.95. 448 pp.

Saleema Nawaz. ‘Bone and Bread.’ House of Anansi Press, 2013. $22.95. 448 pp.

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.)

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Thanks to House of Anansi Press for a review copy of this title.