Sunday, September 1, 2013

Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz

Sisters and secrets. Those two elements might be all the temptation you need to pick up Bone and Bread, a multilayered first novel by Canadian author Saleema Nawaz.

Beena and Sadhana were raised in a small apartment above their father's bagel shop in Montreal. When they are orphaned as teenagers, their dour Sikh uncle takes charge.

"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. He said things like 'You must fight your feminine tendencies towards lasciviousness' and 'You are in league with each other, I know,' which baffled and insulted us but gave me the idea that we made him nervous. Taken with his tendency to leave us to ourselves, Uncle's remarks were like those of an armchair anthropologist, a Victorian studying the natives by virtue of reports and illustrations alone. Like the first attempts of the ancients to track the stars, he managed to get some things right, for who were we in league against if not him?"

Sadhana, the younger by two years, is bisexual and struggles with anorexia. One of the bakery employees gets Beena pregnant when she is 16. Her son is nearly 18 when his aunt Sadhana dies of heart failure at age 32. Beena, distraught by the loss of her recently-estranged sister, is looking for a more complete picture of what was going on in her life. Beena's son Quinn, meanwhile, wants to know about his father.

Bone and Bread moves back and forth in time, revealing a unique family and a strong sisterhood bond. I found Nawaz's portrayal of attitudes towards immigration and a plural society in contemporary Quebec particularly compelling.

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