Review published on December 9, 2016.
Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace is a truly all-encompassing novel. Part love story, part family drama, part social commentary, part tragedy – amongst other things – it is a modern-day epic, and mightily impressive in its scope.
At its centre is protagonist Zubaida, her thwarted relationship with Elijah and her search for her biological mother, all set against a complex marital and familial backdrop and the uncompromising realities of life in Dhaka and Chittagong. The narrative moves from the search for a prehistoric whale to the world of shipbreaking and back again and it is these seemingly disparate threads and the way Anam manipulates and weaves them into a whole that is so distinctive in the book. Indeed, each of the nine sections of which the novel is comprised gradually pieces together the various elements of the story until the final piece of the jigsaw is revealed in the last section and the narrative merges to form a perfect whole.
It is an incredibly complex and intricate structure that Anam uses, showing both ambition and skill, but for the reader it does require some patience to get to that final satisfying conclusion. I did find some of the middle sections drifted a little but the ending does make it worthwhile and I liked that Anam opts for a finale that feels authentic yet promising.
As well as Anam’s distinctive structuring of the story, the novel is also notable for being written in large part as a sort of extended letter from Zubaida to Elijah. This is not an epistolary novel, but instead one long missive that explains Zubaida’s story to Elijah, and again, as with the novel’s ending, Anam handles Zubaida’s characterisation in particular with credibility. She is a character who is flawed but is aware of her flaws and striving to right her wrongs. Whilst the majority of the novel is written from Zubaida’s perspective, the fifth section – the very centrepiece of the story – is written from the perspective of Anwar, and this section gives a really startlingly different landscape in which to understand the narrative and is a key piece of the entire plot.
Overall, Anam’s novel is both a great read and a skilful feat that makes it easy to understand why she was named as Granta’s Best Young British Novelist in 2013.
The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam
Canongate Books 978-1847679789 pbk Feb. 2017