You really never can tell, I hadn’t read a whale book since Moby Dick (originally published in 1851 and discussed on my blog here). Then, this year, two whale novels were suddenly vying for my attention. I loved Shirely Barrett’s historical story about whaling in NSW, ‘Rush Oh!’ (reviewed here), could ‘The Bones of Grace’ give me a hat-trick of great whale reads?
Unlike the other books mentioned so far, ‘The Bones of Grace’ is resolutely twenty-first century. The narrator, Zubaida Haque, may be a palaeontologist, but she sustains a long-distance relationship through a romantic playlist and comfortably straddles contemporary Bangladesh and Boston. Also, rather than seeing whales as a force of nature that will always stand in opposition to human control and industrialisation, the giants of Aman’s novel are impotent messengers from a bygone age.
We first encounter Zubaida as a reflective lab worker, investigating the bones of Diana, also known as Ambulocetus. It was Diana who first lead her away from Boston and on to a dig at Dera Bugti, a region as alien and threatening as any faced by Melville’s sailers. When the venture comes to an abrupt and traumatic end, Zubaida returns to her family and picture-perfect fiancé in Dhaka. Her quest is not over though; she’s haunted by what was left behind, in Boston and in Dera Bugti. Like Diana, the prehistoric ‘walking whale,’ it seems Zubaida is fated to a life of indecision, never sure where she truly belongs.
This sense of belonging is even more troubled due to Zubaida’s obsession with her own mysterious past; the first thing she tells her American lover is ‘When I was nine years old, I found out I was adopted.’ While her own privileged life is an apt setting for these neurotic yearnings for her own place in the world, much of the rest of the book subtly points to how lucky she has been. A parallel story begins in the construction yards of Dubai where life is cheap and loyalty a luxury few can afford. We know the two stories will converge, but not before the fragility of life and hope are revealed to all the characters involved.
Personally, I preferred the whales to the human characters, even if one mammal was only made of skeletal remains and the other is a straight-up metaphor. The best bits of the book take place in Chittagong, where Zubaida goes to work on a documentary film about the ship-breaking industry. She is especially involved in the dismantling of a ship called ‘Grace’ and ‘watched that great leviathan stripped down to her very bones.’ ‘Grace’ is awe-inspiring and dangerous. The men who work on her are courting death and, even when inert, her power is formidable. As she is stripped down, the threads of Zubaida’s life begin to collide and the resolution of the novel’s quests threaten to be as traumatic as their causes.
Anam was a Granta ‘Best of Young British’ Novelist in 2013 and she brings skill and confidence to this sprawling narrative. Of course, I was always going to enjoy it – because there really is nothing better than a well-told Whale quest, especially when reading it allows me to travel the world and even back to the dawn of the species.
I received my copy of ‘The Bones of Grace’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.