First, a warning: The Bones of Grace is the final installment in Bangladeshi-born, London-domiciled Tahmima Anam’s “Bengal trilogy.” If the trilogy’s publication history is any indication – “A Golden Age” in 2008, “The Good Muslim” three years later in 2011, and now “Grace” five years later – then readers might be waiting seven long years for Anam’s next book. For those lucky enough to now be discovering Anam for the first time, a priceless literary gift awaits: to experience three generations of the remarkable Haque family – without interruption.
Anam is one of an elite group of multicultural British writers whose debut earned instant success. “Golden” introduced young widow Rehana Haque and her two children, who survive Bangladesh’s brutal 1971 War of Independence, and won Anam the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. “Muslim” focused on the now-adult Sohail and Maya, and was nominated for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Granta named Anam one of 2013’s Best of Young British Novelists, publishing her short story, “Anwar Gets Everything,” in the spring 2013 issue – offering an early glimpse of “Grace,” which arrived stateside today.
From Rehana to Sohail and Maya, Anam now moves her narrative lens to the third, current generation – to Maya’s daughter Zubaida, who begins her story in Cambridge, Mass., where she has just glimpsed a figure from her past, whom she hopes to reclaim in her future. She admits that she “must have been composing this story in [her] head for some time,” creating a “final plea” to win back her lost love.
By the book’s third page, the story is revealed: “There is a whale, a woman who gave up her child, a piano, and a man who searched so long and hard for his beloved that he found me.” What follows in the next 400-plus pages is glorious explication.
Zubaida, a Harvard paleontology graduate student, prepares to travel to remote Pakistan where she’ll take part in unearthing “a complete skeleton of the ancient whale Ambulocetus natans,” a hybrid ancestor that could both walk on land and swim. Just before departure, she meets Elijah Strong at a piano concert when he touches her in comfort when she begins sobbing in the dark, igniting an instant connection.
A few days together is seemingly not enough to prevent Zubaida’s trip, and she arrives in Dera Bugti, Pakistan, only to “realize, late, that [she’s] not the adventurous type.” The dig is abandoned after the vicious arrest of one of her colleagues, and the remaining team is expelled from Pakistan, sending Zubaida home to Bangladesh. Succumbing to familial pressure, she marries her childhood sweetheart, Rashid – the patient, caring son of her mother Maya’s best friend. The life that was intended for Zubaida – privileged, pampered, beloved – however, is not enough.
Told at age 9 that she had been adopted, Zubaida now intensifies her search for her birth mother. Feeling stifled by Rashid’s family, she goes to Chittagong, Bangladesh, to work on a documentary film about the so-called shipbreakers – the expendable men who endure dangerous, sometimes fatal, conditions to “break” ships into salable pieces. Among these workers is Anwar – first introduced in Granta – whose aggressive recognition of Zubaida will eventually lead her to the longed-for connections between past, present, and future.
Anam’s declaration in May in The Guardian, “ ‘Is Bangladesh turning fundamentalist?’ – and other questions I no longer wish to answer,” went global recently. And while topics such as torture, murder, gender, and socioeconomic inequity have not disappeared from “Grace,” it is introspection, emotions, and attachments that illuminate this narrative, complete with rapid heartbeats and breathtaking sighs. Perhaps because Anam draws on personal details – like her protagonist, Anam attended an elite New England college, earned a Harvard PhD (Anam’s is in social anthropology), has a non-Bangladeshi love of her life she met at Harvard – “Grace” proves to be the most intimately affecting of her three titles.
“I am making space for all the other questions,” she writes in The Guardian, “the questions about falling in love, about the taste of water in the air, about the blue-black feathers and crimson eyes of the koel bird.” Her answers lead directly to “Grace.”
Terry Hong regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.