Remarkable. In the currents of Canadian literature, there are few writers who can meld the longing of the human soul with a story so believable and engaging as Saleema Nawaz has in her debut novel Bone and Bread. Her superb writing lures you first with grief and absence and then seduces you by painting the mundane on a canvas of life’s small absurdities.
Beena and Sadhana Singh are unlikely heroines. Their parents, a free-thinking Sikh pastry cook turned Jewish bagel shop owner and an Irish mother who teaches yoga and dabbles in Eastern astrology, induct their children into a world of non-conventionalism, self-dependence and resilience. Two years apart in age, the two girls are inseparable. The death first of their father and then of their mother leave the sisters adrift in a world where their only relative is “Uncle,” their father’s younger tradition-bound brother. The lifelong bachelor is incapable of understanding the emotional needs of his nieces, and tries unsuccessfully to inculcate them with old world values and teach them how to be “good girls.” At sixteen, Beena throws herself into her first love, with eighteen-year-old Ravi Pattel, a ‘bagel boy’ in the family business in Montreal’s multi-cultural neighbourhood of Mile End. When Beena becomes pregnant, Ravi slips away, abetted by his upper class Hindu parents. Even Uncle’s attempt to bribe Ravi’s family with a sizable dowry fails to rescue Beena from single-motherhood. While Beena drops out of school and prepares herself for the challenges of being a teenaged parent, Sadhana, unable to overcome the loss of her mother, descends into life-threatening anorexia.
Ironically, both sisters find themselves in the same hospital the day that Beena’s son, Quinn, is born. His existence fills a void in the two sisters’ lives and restores their bond to each other. Sadhana excels on Montreal’s vibrant theatre and art scene, attracts to her numerous lovers and falls and recovers from serious bouts of anorexia. Beena plods along, raises her son, moves to Ottawa to find work as a free-lance editor, and her love life is occasionally punctuated by suitors who invariably fade away, leaving behind only disappointment. The love of the two sisters for Quinn is the glue that holds them together until Sadhana’s death under unexplained circumstances. Haunted by the thought that she may have contributed to her sister’s death, Beena returns to Montreal to piece together the last secretive weeks of Sadhana’s life. Quinn, now 18, accompanies his mother to Montreal, but on a quest of his own—one that will revive painful memories.
Saleema Nawaz's Bone and Bread won on November 19, 2013 the prestigious Paragraphe – Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. She will read on December 8, 2013 at the Magical Evening with Canadian Authors in Montreal (Restaurant Souvenirs d’Indochine, 243 Avenue du Mont-Royal Ouest – 7 pm).
This review was also published in the Capital Literary Review in Ottawa.