Book Review - The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam

Anwar told me that it wasn't until he almost died that he realised he needed to find the woman he had once loved. I've thought about that a lot in the last few years, that if Anwar hadn't worked on that building site, he might never have gone looking for Megna, and if he hadn't done that, I might still be in the dark about my past. I've only ever been a hair away from being utterly alone in the world, Elijah, and it was Anwar who shone a light where once there was only darkness.'

The Bones of Grace.

It is the story of Zubaida, and her search for herself.

It is a story she tells for Elijah, the love of her life.

It tells the story of Anwar, the link in Zubaida's broken chain.

Woven within these tales are the stories of a whale and a ship; a piano and a lost boy.

This is the story of love itself

 This is the third of Tahmima Anam's three generation trilogy set in Bangladesh, following on from A Golden Age, and The Good Muslim. It is written mostly as a narrative as Zubaida, a paleontologist, tries to explain her actions to Elijah after their affair is over. The story starts in Cambridge, Massachusetts where Elijah and Zubaida first meet before moving briefly to an archeological dig in Pakistan. Zubaida is part of a team hoping to excavate the bones of the 'walking whale', Ambulocetus natans but the dig ends in tragedy and she returns to Bangladesh where, despite her misgivings, she marries her childhood friend, Rashid. She soon realises her mistake and seeks to find some purpose to her life and some respite from her unhappy marriage through her job interviewing mistreated workers at a yard taking apart ships and ends up reunited with Elijah. Their romance though isn't destined to run smoothly, her bond, however reluctant, with Rashid,  and a growing obsession with her biological roots leads to tension within all her relationships.
The form of the novel allows Anam to tell a meandering story as Zubaida hints at events and tragedies to come, and characters are introduced gradually before being fleshed out later. Anwar is a peculiarity in the book though, he is allowed to tell his own story. This interrupts the flow of the book a little but is an absorbing tale in it's own right and events later in the book clarify his story further so despite my misgivings I did find it mostly worked despite initially feeling a little jarred by its inclusion.
Zubaida herself is not always an easy character to like, the structure of the novel makes her seem self obsessed but I gave her the benefit of the doubt, as the narrative is a sort of love letter to Elijah so it's inevitable that it will be mostly inwardly focused on her thoughts and feelings. The other characters (including Mo, the most sympathetic character in the novel) are seen through Zubaida's eyes so are necessarily less rounded, we are only seeing her view of them after all. 
Anam has created a novel that looks honestly at cultural history, family ties, religion, honour, and secrets, it is both intimate and expansive, achingly sad yet insightfully witty. Reading the book made me curious to learn more and I found myself looking up facts about Bangladesh's history and paleontology. Literature at its best opens doors and with The Bones of Grace Tahmima Anam does just that. 

 Thanks to the author and publishers for my ARC received through Netgalley. The Bones of Grace will be published in the UK on 5th May 2016 by Canongate.