Bone & Bread by Saleema Nawaz

BoneAndBread_interim.indd“Walking home from the soccer field, I dragged my feet and looked at my family. Though my skin was lighter than Sadhana’s and grew even paler in the winter, Mama said I was my father’s daughter, since I had Papa’s full lips and cheeks, his large brown eyes, his propensity for sweets, and a love of bread.

My sister was darker, smaller, bird-boned, her face angular where mine was round. We both showed signs of inheriting Mama’s strong nose, but when it came to comparing ourselves to the girls at school, Sadhana never wavered in her conviction that we were as pretty as anyone else.  Of the two of us, Sadhana was the best at managing to take the world in and judging it.”

And there you have the title, “bone” representing Sadhana and “bread” representing Beena.

From the first sentence (“If you listen, you can almost hear the sound of my son’s heart breaking.”), this was a novel I didn’t find easy to put down for any reason. I think I might have been willing to skip meals were I living on my own. It had the characteristics of big, family sagas but was, simultaneously, intimate and cozy, peopled by folks you could have tea with and could talk to about anything and everything.

Yet, nothing is hidden and loss and intense grief are present on the first page when we learn that Sadhana has died and at the end of the first chapter Papa whom we have barely met has gone down to the bagel shop and died. Life and all its happenings just seem to roll on and on as the pages turn and there is no time to stop because you will miss something for sure!

The story is set in Montreal mainly but at a certain point Beena and Quinn do move to Ottawa which is a very big step for Beena and the first real break between herself and Sadhana. Quinn maintains the family link by deciding to go to school in Montreal. Papa, by the way, is Indian and Mama was born in Galway.

There is a richness and a fullness and perhaps that is what makes the loss and grief almost bearable. This richness is in things like Mama’s description of Papa’s laugh: “a sneeze full of tulips mixed with a river of swans”. Imagine that! And this description of her uncle: “Uncle was as strange to us as a new kind of tree, a fir in a grove of maples, and he might have felt the same way about us, since he had always been a bachelor.”

There are some very serious issues imbedded in the book in addition to the loss of family members and mother-daughter relationships but everything fits smoothly into the overall narrative. One of those issues centers upon refugees: a refugee family claims sanctuary in a church basement. The mother is Somali and the father is Algerian. Their son is one year old and was born in Canada. The father lost his appeal to stay in Canada and the authorities are trying to make an example of him because he is an activist and was trying to help other Algerians. Sadhana knew the family and as readers we get to go inside the situation with her.

And there is the prickly matter of who Quinn’s father is. Quinn is Beena’s son and his father abandoned her when she was pregnant and Beena has raised him with Sadhana’s and her uncle’s help. (Her uncle took over the bagel shop when Papa died.) Quinn becomes curious about his father when he gets older and he turns to his aunt Sadhana for help in this matter. As readers we know about Quinn’s birth and his father so we are totally involved by the time he becomes interested in finding out more. And Nawaz tucks the story of Quinn’s father neatly into the refugee situation to keep our interest at a high level.

Another of the serious issues is anorexia and the long term role it has in the lives of those who experience it as well as those close to the person afflicted.

A book about real life and how hard it is and how full of fun it is too. And how does it all add up in the end? …….”That I am here in a kitchen with my son, and we are eating together and we are alive. And the work of getting closer, of loving harder, is the work of a whole life.”