Two sisters—close when they were children but divided by pain and problems as they grew into adulthood—have struggled ceaselessly with the bonds that connect them.
There’s no shortage of issues in Canadian writer Nawaz’s (Mother Superior, 2008) first full-length work of fiction. Race, illegal immigration, anorexia, and single parenting are just some of the lesser tributaries swelling the main storytelling flow, devoted to the complicated relationship between sisters Beena and Sadhana Singh. Born of a Punjabi Sikh father and an Irish-born American mother, the girls live over the family business—a bagel shop—in Montreal. Their father’s sudden death is followed by an arson attack on the building that engenders anxiety issues in younger sister Sadhana. Then their mother dies as the result of a celebratory meal prepared by the girls. Now, under the not-so-tender care of an uncle, the teenagers begin to go off the rails: 14-year-old Sadhana develops a life-threatening eating disorder while Beena, at 16, gets pregnant. Packed full of both content and introspective narration, the novel is ponderous and often downbeat, shuttling back and forth between the girls’ pasts and Beena’s present as she copes with the aftermath of Sadhana’s death, announced on the first page, for which her son, Quinn, blames her. As Beena sets about the sad business of sorting through her sister’s possessions, additional plot points emerge involving Quinn, the father he’s never known, and the fight to protect an immigrant family Sadhana was helping. Nawaz brings serious commitment to her ambitiously large tale, but its sluggishness and cast of cool characters work against the reader’s involvement, while the prose, often awkwardly intense—“More and more, regret has simply become the shadow I would cast if I stood in the sun”—sometimes makes matters worse.
An overload of material—and pages—obscures the sincere heart of this earnest story.