Bone and Bread
By Saleema Nawaz
House of Anansi (2013)
Read by Fazeela Jiwa
Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel, Bone and Bread, explores the “deep trenches” of familial bonds. Sisters Beena and Sadhana are orphaned early in their lives; their father dies of a heart attack in his Montreal bagel shop and, years later, their mother chokes on a meal prepared for her by her daughters. This trauma manifests itself throughout the lives of both sisters in opposing but intertwined ways.
The novel opens with a contemporary tragedy: it’s been six months since Sadhana died suddenly in her Montreal apartment. At this time, Beena and her 18-year-old son, Quinn, live in Ottawa, avoiding each other in silent guilt.
Nawaz contextualizes Sadhana’s death by revealing, little by little, the chronology of Beena’s life, and every memory revealed contours Beena’s present-day narrative. Movement between time periods occurs without warning, as Beena’s past is intricately connected to her present. Nawaz repeats the spaces of the past in the present; the bagel shop, the apartment above it, and the streets of the Mile End are common settings throughout.
In the tangled web of Beena and Sadhana’s relationship, feelings of intense closeness and frigid separation exist simultaneously. Nawaz captures the complexity of blood bonds as the fundamental tension between intimacy and distance, and her tale is littered with examples. For instance, Beena and Sadhana’s menstrual cycles are synced. As teenagers, they stop bleeding at the same time, but for vastly different reasons: Beena has become pregnant at 16 after a tryst with one of the “bagel boys” from Uncle’s shop, while Sadhana battles her first round with anorexia. In the same hospital that night, they are separated by their conditions: one nears death as the other gives life.
Later, the sisters and Quinn move into their own tiny apartment. Here, their physical proximity is countered with emotional distance, a chasm created by “Mama’s absence” combined with secrets and lies. Beena muses, “Maybe too much closeness keeps people apart…Self-preservation.” This is Nawaz’s culminating analysis of the blood bond: bound by histories of death and illness that no outsider can comprehend, the sisters use silence to build walls and define their identities.
Bone and Bread is a deeply interior novel. Despite Nawaz’s eloquent descriptions of Beena’s existential crises, Beena’s dialogue is benign and sparse throughout the book, giving the impression that much is left un-communicated. The heavy silences that pervade muffle what little is communicated, resulting in misunderstanding and obfuscation.
Though at times relieving, silence is never the resolution. If the noise represents the weight of everything unspoken in Beena’s life, then her relief is fleeting because it is fabricated—in her life, silence becomes just as jarring as noise. In this novel full of mis(sed)communication, Nawaz infuses the act of dialogue with healing. The end of the novel hints at a more communicative future. In the character of Quinn, who “thinks he can get to the bottom of everything if we just keep everything if we just keep talking,” Nawaz imbues hope.