Canada Reads: In Defence of Saleema Nawaz’s Bone & Bread

Canada Reads. 2016. CBC Books.

Bone & Bread was first published in 2012, but four years later it still feels timely. It opens with Beena Bone and Bread, Saleema Nawaz, House of Anansi, 2012coping with the death of her younger sister, Sadhana, but as it goes on it tells the story of their lives, from when they were children to when Beena’s own child is getting ready to leave home for the first time. And a story of young girls trying to find their place in the world will always be relevant. Both Sadhana and Beena come into contact with a family seeking asylum in Canada and with the recent arrival of Syrian refugees in real life, the anti-immigration positions of a (fictional) Canadian political party sounded uncomfortably familiar. But it really feels as though the central theme of this novel is that people are always starting over, and that’s something Canadians of every generation, gender or political affiliation can relate to.

“The work of getting closer, of loving harder, is the work of a whole life!”

Though it’s true that for some there could be a big defining moment that warrants ‘starting over’. This could be moving to a new country, having a child, or suffering a great trauma. A moment they can point back to and say “that is when everything changed.” But for many people there isn’t such a clear before and after. Instead there are many moments, some large, and some small. A lifetime of stumbling and then getting back up and pushing onwards.

Beena and Sadhana are proof of this. They are sisters, part Sikh-part Caucasian, who grew up above their family’s bagel shop in a largely Hasidic area of Montreal. Years of their relationship are explored in depth, and though some things they need to lean on one another, other times it’s just as important for them push back against their bond. They fight it as much as they treasure it.  For example, Sadhana helps Beena raise her son when he’s a baby, but Beena eventually moves to Ottawa to put some space between them. And throughout the novel the two sisters are forced to start over again and again. After the death of their father, after the death of their mother, when Beena becomes pregnant as a teenager, and then again later when her son Quinn prepares for university. Their lives are constantly in flux, and it feels like everyday they start to get settled they find themselves at the starting line again.

This is best illustrated by Sadhana’s struggles with anorexia. It starts when she’s a teenager, right around the time Beena is pregnant. As one sister grows bigger, the other shrinks smaller. She obsessively counts her calories, exercises to the point of exhaustion, and even hides uneaten food in shoeboxes under her bed for weeks. And she continues to fight with it for the rest of her life. Sometimes she wins those fights, but other times she relapses and finds herself back in the hospital, trying to survive in order to start again.

“We all had an idea of who we were or wanted to be, and we could only be in the world in a such a way that was an approximation of that ideal.”

Her illness has a ripple effect on those around her as well. Beena doesn’t just witness her sister’s illness she fights to keep Sadhana alive. She spends time cooking food for her sister, she stands listening outside bathroom doors, checks her fridge for groceries, and eventually has Sadhana come live with them. And we also see the toll that fight takes on her life. At one point they attend therapy together as a family and Beena is obviously angry. She loves her sister, but she also feels responsible for her, so when one starts over, they both do, and that can be frustrating.

One in five Canadians suffer from mental illness. If you are one of those people or if you are close to someone suffering from mental illness, whether it’s an eating disorder, an addiction, or depression, you will find notes of familiarity in Beena and Sadhana’s story. You know that it isn’t a battle you fight once. It is a war. You can feel better for days, for weeks, for years. You can get your life back on track. But it only takes one moment, one wrong turn, to find yourself back where you started. Bone & Bread let’s the reader know that it’s ok to be starting over again, and is an important reminder that you’re not the only one doing so.  

Christa Seeley

Christa Seeley

Books Editor. Maple Flavoured Darth Vader Fangirl.