Saleema Nawaz’s novel Bone and Bread does a good job of taking its title seriously. Two sisters are the main protagonists. They become orphans when their Sikh father who is a bagel and bread maker in a Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal dies of a heart attack and their Irish yoga instructor mother chokes on a chicken bone. One sister Sadhano has anorexia and starves herself to skin and bone. The other sister Beena has a son named Quinn and in one key scene they connect while eating peanut butter and bread. There are other references to bread and bone. Beena and Sadhano’s mother talks about the way the universe expands like a huge loaf of bread and after their father dies Beena remarks that her mother’s trust in her burdens her very bones. You get the idea.
Both Beena and Sadhano frustrated me, because many of the choices they made seemed self destructive. The relationship between the two sisters was vital to them but at the same time damaging. I suspect there are many family relationships like this. This is a sad story beautifully written, and engagingly told.
The person I wanted to know more about was the girl’s uncle who remains dutifully responsible for his troubled nieces. A bachelor who is forced to run his deceased brother’s bagel business, he has no idea how to raise two teenage girls, after his sister-in-law dies, but he does the best he can. As she grows older Beena comes to realize that her uncle has been a constant in her life, and one of my favorite passages in the book is where Saleema Nawaz describes Beena’s changing relationship with him. “My relationship with uncle has shifted, grown a new layer of sediment, like a softer sand washed onto shore, things moving, slipping away underfoot,some replaced altogether. Contempt on both sides giving way, bit by bit to respect.”
Bone and Bread is one of five books chosen for the 2016 Canada Reads contest.The theme of this year’s contest on CBC is ‘starting over’. Beena and Sadhano must ‘start over’ after each of their parents die. Beena must ‘start over’ when she becomes pregnant as a teenager. Sadhano ‘starts over’ each time she is hospitalized for her anorexia and nears death. Beena must ‘start over’ after her sister Sadhano finally succumbs to her disease and dies. At the end of the book Beena is contemplating ‘starting over’ as her son Quinn goes off to university.
I’ve read all the books chosen for the Canada Reads contest and know exactly which book I’d pick to win. Although I enjoyed Bone and Bread it would be my third place choice in the contest.