Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Novel about Montreal sisters short on empathy

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YOU might think that a story about two sisters born to a Sikh father and a white mother who live in a Hasidic Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal would make for an intriguing read. You might be wrong.

In her debut literary novel, Montreal-based Saleema Nawaz tells a sombre tale of two Indo-Canadian sisters, Beena and Sadhana, who, after being orphaned in their teens, are left to navigate their tumultuous relationship into adulthood.

Meanwhile, the reader is left to navigate through a fairly slow-moving story, despite being barraged by a multitude of themes and issues ranging from childhood loss to Quebecois anti-immigration sentiment.

Nawaz published a short-story collection, Mother Superior, in 2008. In Bread & Bone she tells the story through the eyes of Beena and alternates between her life as a child and adult. She begins with Beena as a single mother in her mid-30s in present-day Ottawa enduring a strained relationship with her teenage son Quinn and grieving the recent death of her sister Sadhana.

While the older Beena tries to discover the cause of her sister's death, the younger Beena recounts the slow unravelling and disintegration of her relationship with Sadhana after their parents' death.

When Nawaz is writing from the point of view of a child, Bone & Bread engages. Nawaz's ability to create the curious yet matter-of-fact tone that children use to make sense of tragedy or uncertainty in their lives is reminiscent of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.

Before long, chapters about the adult Beena seem like rude interruptions, with tales of boyfriend dilemmas and mystery-solving plot lines seeming as if they were from a different novel entirely.

The alternation between past and present does its part in keeping the reader somewhat attentive in what ultimately feels like a sluggish and disjointed story. This, despite the long list of dramatic events the sisters go through: cross-cultural and generational divides, childhood loss, teenage pregnancy, anorexia, a lesbian affair, estranged lovers and eventually death.

Nawaz's understated writing style in revealing such drama would have paid off had her ending not been so anti-climactic. The two main plot lines around Sadhana's death and Quinn's father conclude in such a cursory way that they leave the reader slightly dissatisfied.

Nawaz, who did her master's in English at the University of Manitoba, is successful at building nuanced characters and reflecting the uneasy and untidy nature of family relationships.

The problem, however, is that few of these characters are particularly memorable or likable or develop any real arc throughout the story. While Sadhana is decidedly callous and spiteful, Beena is frustratingly meek. When the main characters hold little meaning for the reader, it makes it almost impossible to emotionally invest in the story.

In between the anorexia and parental alienation, Nawaz inserts socio-political commentary on modern-day Quebec, referring to anti-immigrant policies, refugee issues and the ban on the face veil.

While this allows for the novel to feel grounded and relevant, too often it feels artificial, with political motifs popping up throughout the story like product placement. Not to say that these themes are unimportant, rather that their relationship to forwarding the plot and revealing character should be less tenuous.

Refreshingly, Bone & Bread is not another cultural-identity crisis novel, and Nawaz does well to move beyond the usual clichéd confines of clashes between Eastern and Western values. Nawaz herself was reportedly raised by a single mother, a Nova Scotian, in Ottawa.

There is no doubt that Nawaz is able to develop a complexity of emotions in her characters. What is surprising is that given all this emotion, it still fails to create empathy. And so despite the trials afflicting both sisters -- and there are many --one can't help but be left wondering "so what?"

Welsh-Pakistani Nadia Kidwai is a journalist based in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 J9

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