Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz is a story about how love can sometimes hurt more than it heals. The novel is about two sisters, Beena and Sadhana, who are born in Montreal to an Irish mother and an Indian father. Their father passes away when they are still young, and they live in the world of their mother, until she, too, dies before they are grown.
Narrated through the voice of the older sister Beena, the story alternates between the past, when they struggled to grow up without parents, and the present in which Beena, now in her thirties, is mourning Sadhana’s sudden death. Beena and her teenage son return to Montreal to pack up her sister’s apartment, and the process uncovers details about the part of Sadhana’s life that she’d kept separate from her sister. Interspersed through this storyline, the tale of the sisters’ childhood and teen years starts to take shape: young Sadhana is diagnosed with anorexia, Beena gives birth to her son and the two girls work together to raise him. A certain unnamed competition emerges between the sisters, the younger one breaking out, the older one struggling to regain control of their relationship. They become very different people, but they are bonded by grief and a constant, desperate need for the other.
As the present is interwoven with the story of the past, it becomes clear that both narrative threads are really about Beena’s struggle to understand Sadhana, to love her sister without feeling pain or guilt.
The writing is lovely. There are several descriptions that are particularly memorable, such as the girls playing hide-and-seek as children, lying on the balcony to eavesdrop on the bagel boys, or the scene where they turn the pantry into a temporary bedroom for Beena’s son. These images persist long after the narrative concludes. The story itself unravels at a delicate pace, allowing for a degree of suspense to creep into the narrative. Though not a mystery in the true sense of the genre, the book pulls the reader along with the promise of a reveal at the end, of illuminating details about Sadhana’s death that may bring a sense of closure.
The story is quite captivating; however, it does seem to stretch out a bit too long towards the end. Beena is not always a likable person, and in the latter sections of the book it becomes easier to dislike her narrative voice as the storyline is continuously extended.
It is also interesting that cultural identity does not play an overly pronounced role in the story, as Beena and Sadhana are half Indian and half Irish and therefore must negotiate two very different identities. Though this potentially misses an opportunity to explore the nuances of living as an individual of mixed race in modern Canada, it is refreshing to find two women of unique ethnic background whose story is not overly defined by their minority heritage.
Instead, it is each sister’s distinct character that makes the work so captivating. Nawaz’s writing does a precise job of exploring their lives and the different mechanisms each has of facing the tragedy that they encounter. However, what becomes most clear is that the sisters cope by needing each other. Bone and Bread is about the bond between them that is not only comprised of affection, but also of necessity. It’s about how Beena and Sadhana can define themselves in relation to the other, how they cling with sheer desperation. They are sisters who love each other with such fierceness that their relationship constantly threatens to become destructive.
Bone and Bread was published in 2013 by House of Anansi Press.