A walking whale, a Shostakovich concert, a giant cruise ship stripped down to its bones, an arid landscape from Dera Bugti in Pakistan, messages encrypted in Nina Simone songs, a search for ties, for connections of blood. Such is the bewilderingly diverse and impossibly unconventional tapestry of images splayed throughout the length and breadth of Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace. The cover is as beautiful as the words, for it is an image eliciting profound beauty and yet, an obscure, ancient grief, like a dull ache that’s hard to pin down.
This is the third in Anam’s trilogy that includes A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, but bears scant relation to the previous two, touching their established past only tangentially. This one dives headlong into a new past, incredibly ancient and obscured: a chink in the evolutionary chain, a link to the roots—both of the protagonist Zubaida and of the one object that becomes her goal in life: The walking whale, The Ambulocetus natans, an evolutionary connector that lived both on land and in water, taking whales down a crazy path of evolution, from land to water—while the rest of the universe went the opposite way. Finding the fossils of this walking whale is Zubaida’s mission in life—Zubaida, born to Bangladeshi parents who were freedom fighters in the war of independence, educated at Harvard, selected to go fossil digging in Dera Bugti. And just before this, she meets Elijah Strong. At an immensely moving concert of Shostakovich Preludes, the first words she says to him are: “When I was nine years old, I found out I was adopted.” “Aristotle was an orphan,” Elijah tells her, and she replies, “So was the Prophet Mohammad.”
And thus begins the narration of a story so entirely unusual, so vastly spread out you’d need to sip it very deliberately to take it all in.
The Bones of Grace encompasses a vast landscape of social, political and emotional ebb and flows. It etches out the glaring disparities between the highest and lowest income groups in Bangladesh—not unlike India—and the lives of the workers at the shipbreaking yards so vividly depicted. For a brief section, it dwells upon the resistance of the tribes of Baluchistan and their constant battle with the Pakistani Army—and an ‘unferocious’ curator and fossil hunter caught in the throes of forces much beyond his existence. Woven deftly into all this is the emotional universe of Zubaida, cursed by the ‘loneliness of being the sole inhabitant of my body’ , forever looking for ties that bind her by blood. And her all-consuming, ravaging yearning for Elijah.
A veritable crowd of characters jostles inside—a ‘foreign’ documentary maker, a heart-breakingly committed childhood sweetheart, a ‘darkie’ wife always rejected and a construction worker back from Dubai—Anwer, whose story we had read beforehand in the tiny Granta prelude. But among all these is the seemingly inconsequential story of little Mo, as smitten by Elijah as Zubaida, and who earnestly wishes and believes Elijah would take him to America. Nothing breaks your heart, perhaps, as much as the story of brave little Mo.
This isn’t an easy novel to swim through. Every fine work of fiction takes you into strange new lands, and takes some getting used to, some time to penetrate. But this one is harder to reach, takes much longer to let you in. All the better, perhaps, for the way it later wraps around you. A wonderland of sorts— but a heart-breaking, wistful wonderland.
(This review was first published in the newspaper Financial Chronicle.)