This is not a new book, in fact it was published in 2007. Nor is it the author’s only book. Tahmima Anam has written a sequel The Good Muslim which I have yet to read. She’s four years younger than me yet published this, her first novel five years before I managed to the write the first draft of mine – yet to be published by anyone – so I should hate her with all the vitriolic strength that professional jealousy can arouse.
But I don’t.
Instead, A Golden Age brought to life a history that I know well and have studied for four years. Indeed, living in Bangladesh, it would be almost impossible not to know something of what took place in 1971, the setting for Anam’s story. Where her book scores is in bringing these events to life, making them real as we feel what her characters feel rather than just read the cold hard facts of the War between Pakistan and the land that was to be born as Bangladesh. From the opening words : “Dear Husband, I lost our children today,” we are thrown into the heart-rending world of a woman struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband – a man she never expected to love – followed by having her children cruelly taken away from her before war then threatens to destroy her family forever.
I’ve meant to read this book for a couple of years now and it has sat on my shelf, waiting, along with a number of other books including Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. Some members of LAMB here wanted to read A Golden Age to hold a book club session and discuss it. Well, I can’t pass up an opportunity like that, can I? So the latest Masters essay got put on hold (again – see my last minipost) and I spent the last few days reading the book to prepare for the meeting this coming Friday.
I’m glad I did.
Anam is a wonderful storyteller. Her writing is easy to follow and the plot never gets heavy or cumbersome despite the sorrow and horror that befall her characters and, in reality, came to so many in Bangladesh too. It is a book that I will happily encourage my daughter to read. There is pretty much no bad language and only one brief scene of a mild sexual nature and that makes the book a pleasure to read. It is as far from Mr Grey as you could get and so it should be. Anam has a wonderful gift for not making explicit what should be left implicit – whether that be growing yearnings for love or the horrors of war.
The people of Bangladesh are, quite understandably, deeply affected by the events of those nine months in 1971 (the year of my birth). Independence was hard fought for and well earned at tragic cost. Anam is careful not to lay too much blame at the door of Pakistan. She tells events like they happened and, whilst she gives her characters certain opinions, is careful not to allow personal rhetoric to prevail.
Her main character, a Muslim mother and young widow called Rehana, speaks Urdu, the language of Pakistan, and has many sympathies with the western wing of the country at that time. She gradually becomes, as much because of her children as anything, attached to the fight for Independence but you are left questioning, in the end, whether she became a Bangladeshi because of her children or because of her belief in the cause. Anam does not give us clear answers here and the story is better for it. Both Bangladeshi and Pakistani historians can be charged with presenting very different ‘black and white’versions of the events. Anam avoids this by relating only what really took place and what it felt like to the people living through it rather than offering a commentary on the rights and wrongs.
I remember, several years ago, going to Bongabondhu’s house where he was assassinated in 1975. This man – the ‘father of the nation’ – whose historic speech and subsequent arrest were the final catalysts for the war to begin went on to become the first President but was murdered just four years later. History comes alive when you visit his house and see the bullet holes in the walls and the blood stains on the floors, carefully preserved behind glass plates. You realise this was not just an even in history but that a human being was involved.
A Golden Age does the same thing for me. It makes the events happening in the country and, especially, in Dhaka real and alive. I certainly recommend this book as a must for anyone planning to live and work in Bangladesh. For anyone wanting a better understanding of some of the love I have for this country and its people I strongly recommend it. Those of you who are mothers, I can’t believe you won’t identify strongly with Rehana and the strength she finds to save those she loves – and the horrible choices she ultimately has to make. Those of you who love to read will finish it very swiftly. It really isn’t a heavy plot but it is a powerful one.
Like the Surya Trilogy which I have reviewed in the past, this book tells you much about the Asian (Bangladeshi) psyche and gives a wonderful understanding of the pride Bangladeshis have of their shonar Bangla – their Golden Bangladesh. Read it and learn a little of what it means to earn your freedom. Something too many of us take for granted and consider to be a right.