Beena and Sadhana are sisters orphaned at a young age and assigned to live with their uncle, a Sikh who owns a bagel shop in Montreal that people assume is owned by a Jewish family. Not only is their uncle’s traditional values at odds with their mother’s more hippie-style upbringing, but the sisters themselves seem to be inevitably growing apart, Beena feeling the weight of responsibility in her role as older sister and caretaker, and Sadhana trying to break free from her sister’s influence. Saleema Nawaz’s Bone and Bread is about sisters — the love, the rivalry and all the wonderful complexities contained therein. It’s about family, grief and guilt, and to a lesser extent, cultural identity.
The scenes depicting Beena and Sadhana’s childhood are strong. The difference in their looks and skin colour, such that people may not necessarily realize they are sisters, is mirrored in the difference in their personalities — the stolid Beena is the obedient eldest child and the beautiful, artistic Sadhana tries to fit in with the popular crowd. Nawaz describes their relationship beautifully, balancing sibling rivalry against a deep sense of affection.
Particularly powerful is the scene of their mother’s death. This causes an irreparable, yet mostly concealed, rift between the sisters, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a powerful, horrifying scene, one that sticks with me long after I’ve finished reading the book.
The description of the ensuing conflict between the sisters is also compelling. There’s a point when Beena, who takes her role as Sadhana’s caretaker very seriously, discovers how much Sadhana really resents her, and just that moment of realization, that searing bolt of pain Beena must have felt, was such a powerful, pivotal moment in the book.
Beena ends up an unwed teenage mother, while Sadhana becomes anorexic, and the visual tension created by Beena’s tummy growing while Sadhana’s body whittles away is striking. Both sisters are in bad shape, emotionally and physically, and much as you want them to return to the closeness they shared before their mother’s death, all you can do is watch helplessly as they pull even further away from each other.
The story falters somewhat in the present day plot. The mystery of the circumstances behind Sadhana’s death is important in terms of Beena’s sense of guilt over it, but it never really seems to matter. Beena’s issues with her son and his desire to meet his father similarly pale in comparison to her issues with Sadhana, and when Nawaz brings in a political angle to the plot, there’s just too much going on to care. Bone and Bread, particularly in the present day plot, tries to tackle too much, when the power of the story is firmly in the relationship between the sisters. Ironically, the event that set the story off in the first place — Sadhana’s death — appears to have weakened it. How would the story have been if Sadhana hadn’t died, if Beena had been forced to face her sister all the way till the bitter end? What if the story had been focused on Beena and Sadhana’s relationship, with the political subplot firmly ensconced within the sisters’ tale?
Personally, I would have liked to find out.
Thank you to House of Anansi for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.