The Bones of Grace
Author: Tahmima Anam
Publisher: Penguin India
The arc of history sweeps across 50 million years in Tahmima Anam’s new novel The Bones of Grace. At one end, in the Early Eocene era before the end of the dinosaurs, is the Ambulocetus natans, a walking whale. At the other end, in 21st century Bangladesh, is the search of an adopted child for her birth parents. Linking the two is the narrator and central protagonist, Zubaida Haque.
This is the third novel of Anam’s Bangladesh trilogy, completing the project that started with A Golden Age (2007) and The Good Muslim (2011). A layered love story set across two sides of the world and written as a long letter from the narrator, The Bones of Grace has a more personal and intimate tone than the previous two novels.
A graduate student at Harvard, Zubaida is studying a milestone in evolutionary history: “the moment, somewhere around 50 million years ago, when whales began to swim.” She is also on a personal quest to find her biological parents and discover her individual history.
Days before leaving for fieldwork, she meets and falls in love with Elijah, an American pianist. But work on the dig goes horribly wrong. Deeply shaken, Zubaida returns to Bangladesh and agrees to marry Rashid, her childhood sweetheart and son of her parent’s closest friends. The very next day after the wedding, she is aware it has been the wrong decision. Life in her in-laws’ home is one of idle privilege. After she has a miscarriage, she escapes her stifling life in the wealthy joint family by going to work on a documentary film about Chittagong shipbreakers.
Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Anwar, a Bangladeshi man forced by poverty to leave his lover and child behind while he goes to earn a living in Dubai. When he returns, barely escaping death while cleaning skyscraper windows, his lover and child are missing. Offsetting Zubaida’s intense self-absorption is the counterweight of Anwar’s powerfully plain narrative: “I wander from one building to another but there are no jobs. Or maybe there are, but when they look at my face and see the life stamped out of me, they say no.”
Central to the novel is the subject of Zubaida’s adoption. One of the most nuanced passages in the novel depicts her disappointment with Rashid’s response on this matter. When she tells him that she was adopted, he replies that he has always known, adding: “It’s nothing. My parents know, and nobody minds.” Zubaida is stung by the thoughtlessly patronising words. “Nobody minds. There was generosity there, and something else — forgiveness, maybe. I didn’t know what I had to be sorry for, but I was sorry, and he was telling me it was all right.”
This is a thoughtful novel, epic in scope and filled with great beauty and feeling. It approaches its themes from different directions, like a musical composition. In one segment of the narrative, a team of marine paleontologists sets out to study the delicate bones of Ambulocetus to compose an imagined whole; another part of the novel describes the slow, careful dismantling of a “great leviathan” of a ship that had once sailed the same seas in which Ambulocetus had long ago made its home. Yet another section of the novel describes a different kind of project: the hard struggle over many years to secure justice for the victims of the nation’s painful past. Whether it is the treatment of intellectual work, physical labour, or the moral, ethical work of the conscience and the law, one of the pleasures of this novel is the attentiveness and respect with which it describes collaborative human endeavour.
Earlier novels in the trilogy asked: what does it mean to be a nation? How is a nation formed; if painfully, how is the pain assuaged? This novel asks: what does it mean to be a family; how do families come together, and how do they break apart? The profoundly optimistic answer is that ties of blood need not be the only ones that bind humans together. There are also ties of intellectual scholarship and ideas, of commitment, of friendship and of love.