Before I began reading Bone and Bread, I read Mother Superior, Saleema Nawaz’s debut, a collection of stories.
About “Bloodlines”, I noted: ”S keeps Khalsa (pure, according to Sikh law) and B does not, so B grows larger and S grows smaller, above a Montreal bagel bakery.”
When I began reading Bone and Bread, I recognized these characters immediately: Sadhana and Beena, sisters.
And, when I realized that Sadhana had died, somewhere between that story and this novel, I was angry.
I do read quite a few short stories, and I am accustomed to the form; I don’t expect them to read like a novel, but I do imagine that the lives of the characters therein continue on, after I have made their acquaintance. Whether or not I reconnect with them later as a reader, whether or not the writer reconnects with them, I think those characters still exist somewhere.
Had I read “Bloodlines” in 2008, when the collection was published, I would have had five years to have imagined Sadhana still alive, only to find out that she had perished, that this pair of sisters no longer existed as I had imagined they would. As it was, it took me a few weeks to accept the fact that the story of these two sisters was more tragic than I would have expected (and there was a fair bit of tragedy in it to begin with, really).
But the other side of that frustration was a clear indication that I felt a connection to these characters.
In the space of a single story, I had grown attached to Sadhana and Beena.
I read Bone and Bread very quickly: in the park, with my lunch, before bed, on the subway, and, certainly, in the neighbourhood bagel shop. I wanted to know more about these sisters.
This feeling is echoed in the author’s discussion of the inspiration to write a novel rooted in this story, which she discusses in an interview with Salty Ink (Chad Pelley):
“I wanted to meet Beena’s baby! And I wanted to know what would happen with Sadhana’s illness. I was also really curious about Mama’s backstory, which was something I did explore in some early pages but soon set aside when I realized the novel was going to be about the sisters.”
The emphasis seems to be on excitement and intrigue, and, yet, underscoring the novel is a sense of loss and sadness.
A quote from one of my favourite stories in Mother Superior (“The White Dress”) seems to sum it up well: ”It might be that really everybody was always leaving, that partings and separations were closer to the heart of things. I didn’t like that idea at all.”
But although the sisters’ story in “Bloodlines” does reside in grief, the death of a parent, the story in Bone and Bread has another kind of beginning.
Structurally, the novel unfolds with chapters set in the past before Sadhana’s death and in the present after she has died. There is never any confusion surrounding the shifts; they are clearly defined and the transitions are smooth. ”At the beginning, there was me, and there was Sadhana. There was Papa and Mama. And there were the things that Mama told us.”
There is a wholeness, security, comfort to the beginning. Though it is not without weight.
“The weight of her trust that I could be good would come over me like gravity’s spell on a returning astronaut. It burdened my very bones.”
And, oh, how important is that weight. For Sadhana’s anorexia weighs heavily on the narrative. Because Bone and Bread begins with news of her death, there is a pall across all the rest.
And there is the paradox. For all the weight of this issue creates an inimitable vulnerability. ”Of the two of us, Sadhana was the best at managing to take the world in and judge it.”
And there is another paradox, for Sadhana’s ability to take the world in and judge it is intertwined with her struggle with anorexia, with her own ideas about worth and powerlessness, control and sacrifice, insecurity and loss.
The sisters are, largely, unravelling the mysteries of teenage life on their own.
“Taken with his tendency to leave us to ourselves, Uncle’s remarks were like those of an armchair anthropologist, a Victorian studying the natives by virtue of reports and illustrations alone. Like the first attempts of the ancients to track the stars, he managed to get some things right, for who were we in league against if not him?”
The Uncle’s character was one of the elements of “Bloodlines” with immediately appealed to me. He was dutiful and protective, but he was unequipped to deal with two teenage girls living in Montreal, overwhelmed by both Sadhana’s illness and Beena’s pregnancy.
“’Can’t you be quiet?’ he said. ‘Good girls are quiet girls.’”
But neither Sadhana nor Beena are quiet girls, and neither from exhibits the kind of ‘goodness’ that their Uncle craves, and the girls, too, struggle to define themselves.
“’You are an Indian girl.’
‘Not really. Not like they want.’
It was always easier, for some reason, to know what I wasn’t.”
Fundmantally Bone and Bread is about loss, and the connections that one makes in the face of loss. But, which loss? A father. (A husband.) A mother. (A friend.) A sister. (A lover.) An aunt. (A father.)
Some of these relationships are more parenthetical than others, but there is always an absence, so lasting an absence that it becomes ever-present, like the cross on the mountain in Montreal.
“We stand facing the mountain. Around the tall neon cross at its summit is an emanating glow, the appearance of halo caused by the heat of the light.”
Mothers and daughters and sisters: a halo. What makes us good? Which relationships define us? What does the effort of concealment truly cost? How fervently can we shape our own reality? What kind of sacrifices truly yield new choices?
From “Bloodlines” to Bone and Bread, these two sisters wax and wane, and if Sadhana’s story had to end, I’m glad it rested in the hands of Saleema Nawaz.
Have you read her work? Are you planning to? Have you read a memorable story about sisters recently?