Bone Worship by Elizabeth Eslami

Book titles can be an interesting way of choosing a book to read, especially if you don’t know the author and that is why this one found its way into my cart at the thrift store, that and the very attractive Middle Eastern-style design that frames the face of the person on the front of the book, presumably the representation of the narrator Jasmine’s face.

I was also intrigued by the title, Bone Worship as it suggested unorthodox beliefs or practices obviously involving bones or relics perhaps. It was up to me as the reader to discover the secret of the book title and Elizabeth’s Eslami’s motive in choosing it and so, I delved into the pages to search it out.

Essentially, this is a novel about families and the relationships between the individuals within families and how they start, develop, fracture, heal and ultimately, how those individuals choose to have those relationships function, which ironically can be more like dysfunction. The book begins with Jasmine being brought home from Chicago where she has failed at her studies. Her parents have come to collect her and it is with some trepidation that she returns to her life in Arrowhead, Georgia, USA, a small town of little renown, population and prospects.

Jasmine is a girl who is a product of the uniting of two cultures: her mother is an American and her father is an immigrant from Iran. She has an older brother called Uri who is absent, also having dropped out from the path offered by his level of education to become an adventure writer, visiting exotic places and performing activities that would be perceived as dangerous to the untrained. Uri does not come home often and calls infrequently, from places with a poor reception.

Jasmine has no real plan for her future. It seems like her studies went off the rails due to a misguided relationship and she is floundering, unsure of what she wants to do, unsure of what she could do, but sure that she does not want what her parents want for her, which is marriage.

Photo by Bernyce Hollingworth on

Jasmine is our narrator and so we follow her as she listlessly spends her day at the library reading books and writing random comments about her father in their margins. She lives under the constant threat of being paired off with someone that her parents have found in advertisements that they have placed in various places. She needs to find a job but her motivation is low and the job market is limited to shop work and waitressing. She has no friends and therefore, no social life. She is a mess.

But what is really at the crux of this book is Jasmine trying to discover her father and get to the bottom of who she is to him and who he is to her. Her father doesn’t talk about his life in Iran. Jasmine knows that she still has family there because her father is still in contact with them and has stilted conversation of abrupt one word answers with them on the phone in Farsi – she has no idea what is being said and her father does nothing to enlighten her.

Because he is not forthcoming, she makes up stories, like mini myths about his life, to explain his behaviour to her, to help her to understand this man who can kill a snake with a shovel, likes cycling with his friend Don at the park, who is a great radiographer at the local hospital but from a daughterly aspect, seems distant and disinterested in her other than when she can become married.

Eventually, Jasmine does gain some momentum in her life, getting a job and having the chance of a career ahead of her. She also reaches greater understanding of her father and there is the idea that even though he is trying to arrange a marriage for her, he is doing it because he wants her in some way to be secure, to not be dependent on him and as she has already tried the path to educational enlightenment and independence and stumbled, it is up to him to provide the clear way for her by entrusting her to another capable man. It is an antiquated notion but one, in this instance, which seems to extend from love.

The intervention of her parents in affairs of the heart is not a total disaster for Jasmine and the process leads her to become closer to her mother and learn more about her parents’ marriage than she ever knew before and it is quite an uplifting ending, in many ways.

Photo by Abhas Jaiswal on

The mystery of the title was resolved too: bone worship is a reference to the innate instincts of elephants to be able to recognise each other, even in death, by their bones. They turn the bones over and over when they find them and then bury them in the long grass so that they can no longer be disturbed.

With reference to the book, it is perhaps difficult to decipher exactly what it means. It could be referring to the fact that we are more instinctive than we realise and therefore, we know each other despite our feelings to the contrary, that it is in our bones, that our shared essence is always passed on and that will always be known to us. However, in the handling of the bones of the elephants, the idea inferred is that we can go over and over things and not really understand what happened despite this process but these metaphorical “bones”, the issues that we may have within families can safely be put to rest if we are careful and respectful.

This was an enjoyable book with some quite funny moments. It provides an insight into the dynamic of a family, the members of which are very different. Elizabeth Eslami has neither beguiled nor repelled me so there’s a chance I will read her again especially if she chooses another intriguing title.

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