Five years after Mother Superior, her breakthrough collection of short stories, Saleema Nawaz returns with a big and beautiful novel set in Montreal and Ottawa. While there’s much travelling in this book – through time as well as space – the more important journey is the author’s successful migration from short stories to a single (and singular) narrative. It’s not a clean break: Nawaz brings along Beena and Sadhana, the two sisters we first met in Mother Superior’s “Bloodlines,” as well as a preoccupation with motherhood as a blessing and an affliction.
Bone and Bread begins with news of Sadhana’s sudden death in her Montreal apartment. The sisters have been estranged for a number of years despite a physical and psychic connection forged by their hippie mother, who went out of her way to sync their menstrual cycles as the siblings, two years apart in age, entered adulthood.
The connection only grows following Sadhana’s death, as Beena, thrust into the role of narrator and memoirist, reconstructs and reorders the family’s past and her own present, offering one of the subtlest and most psychologically astute studies of sibling rivalry in recent Canadian fiction.
Both sisters grow up in a small apartment above their Sikh father’s bagel shop in the heart of Montreal’s Jewish community of Mile End. Their lives, if not charmed, are at least charming. Nawaz writes with characteristic gusto here: memories are not just evoked, they’re attacked with precision and, sometimes, rage. The sisters’ lives diverge when Sadhana’s eating and other mental disorders dictate the course of her remaining life and Beena becomes pregnant by one of the young men in her father’s shop.
In strict plot terms, Bone and Bread is about uncovering the circumstances behind Sadhana’s death. Yet the mystery is the least engaging part of the narrative: Nawaz incorporates an overplotted and underwritten sub-theme of racial politics in Quebec while clearly trying to bring the story to an end. It’s a minor flaw in a first novel that rewards the reader’s emotional involvement with a quietly tragic examination of the numerous solitudes in the life of one family.