‘Bone Worship’ and the human family

By Casey N. Cep
January 23, 2010

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The title of Elizabeth Eslami’s debut novel comes from a ritual that elephants perform. When an elephant dies, its family members cover the body with brush and soil, revisiting the bones for years, caressing them with their trunks. A haunting symbol of remembrance, bone worship becomes the organizing principle of Eslami’s investigation of familial and cultural memory.

When Jasmine Fahroodhi fails out of the University of Chicago in her final semester, she returns home to her parents in Arrowhead, Ga. Her American mother, Margaret, and Iranian father, Yusef, offer an uncomfortable homecoming by announcing their intention of arranging a marriage for her. With the strident bedside manner he perfected as a radiologist delivering bad news, Yusef works to locate potential husbands while Margaret uses the disarmingly calm demeanor she developed as an emergency dispatcher to reassure Jasmine that the hastegar - the arranged marriage - is in her best interests.

Yusef’s frenzied attempts to recruit husbands through newspaper advertisements and Internet postings create a comical “groom soup’’: Mohammed, who protests that Jasmine looks nothing like her online photograph; Ali, a moneyed sloth, who declares “he would never, under any circumstances, work a day in his life” ; John, who after three dates declares “I don’t believe in buying untested merchandise’’; Omar, who chooses a pure Iranian wife over Jasmine; Alan, who brings along his mother and Greek baklava on their first date; and Gabe, a convicted shoplifter who after puzzling over the Fahroodhis’ ethnicities declares his preference for “zebra’’ over “mixed’’ as a description of multicultural families.

With her parents distracted by the husband hunt, Jasmine uses the months following her fall from academic grace to study her father’s Iranian heritage and family, understand her failed collegiate career and confused ambitions, and find a job in the narrow-minded and economically starved town of Arrowhead. She settles on a janitorial position at a nearby zoo, leaving her plenty of energy during and after work to uncover and revere her father’s history.

These reverences and the sometimes unrelated mythologies they provoke become the most compelling geography of the novel, taking Jasmine far from Arrowhead to: the pistachio trees and mud floors of her father’s childhood in Tehran; the icy tundra of the North, where Eskimos lure wolves with bloody caribou bones; the bustling streets of Delhi, where a snake handler and his sons sleep with cobras; and the Yucatan Peninsula, where jaguars live high in the mountain jungles. These beautiful waking dreams of life abroad consume Jasmine as she labors to learn the past her father refuses to share with his American family. In her search, she discovers reasons for her family’s dedicated interest in an arranged marriage: an American man her mother regrets not marrying and the Iranian woman Jasmine’s father was promised to before she killed herself.

But these are only dreams, and they read like blissful escapes from the lived narrative that Eslami has chosen for her novel. The graceful story of maturing and coming to know one’s origins is lost in the awkward architecture of a first novel: obsessively clever chapter titles; a few hyperbolic episodes of self-harm including a drastic haircut and a lost tooth; Jasmine’s tedious interest in journaling her family’s stories into the margins of books; and an unexplained illness that speeds the marriage plot while soothing tensions between father and daughter. For all its exotic beauty and colloquial comedy, “Bone Worship’’ comes to resemble the cumbersome pachyderms that practice the ritual of mourning more than the plaintive ritual itself.

Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

BONE WORSHIP Elizabeth Eslami

Pegasus Books, 352 pp., $15.95