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The Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam.

October 29, 2012

A Golden Age: A Novel, by Tahmima Anam. New York: HarperPerennial, 2007.

A compelling and beautiful novel about a widow and her college-age children during the war for independence in Bangladesh in 1971.

Tamima Anam was born in Bangladesh.  She still loves her “beautiful and bruised country” despite having lived much of her childhood and adult life living elsewhere. After earning a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Harvard, she decide that she wanted to write fiction and not be confined to “a certain notion of truthfulness.”  In preparing to write this book, she interviewed over a hundred survivors of the war in Bangladesh and realized that the story she wanted to tell was not that of the big rallies or the battles but how war impacted the everyday lives of the people. She tells of boys exchanging shirts on their way into battle and a mother quoting Urdu poetry to the Pakistani soldiers to try and protect her daughter.

The book opens with the commanding statement, “Dear Husband, I have lost our children today.” Its suspense holds the reader right through to the amazing ending.  Widowed, Rehane had been forced to give her children to her in-laws back in Pakistan, but eventually she managed to reclaim them.  Then ten years later, when they are in college and war for Bangladesh independence breaks into their lives, she is again threaten with their loss, both emotionally and literally.  Rehane and how she feels about her children are the central core of he book. As a widow and a mother she is disempowered in her society, but she finds strength. Some readers may question some of her decisions, but Anam’s portrayal of Rehane make them seem natural and true to who she is.

The novel is full of surprise and suspense.  Its pace is brisk, yet the story is full of sharply precise descriptions of people, places and events.  A word or phrase gives instant recognition of a situation.  She captures a moment in the midst of war when the mother steps onto the kitchen porch at dawn. “It was always at this time of day that she allowed herself a selfish moment, when the house, the world was hers, and there was no one to love, no one to save. It lasted only a moment.  A few minutes was all the time she would grant it.”

Chapters often open with descriptions of the landscape and reveal Anam’s feel for her homeland and its pain.

The sky over Bengal is empty. No mountains interrupt it; no valleys, no hills, no dimple in the landscape. It is flat, like a swamp, or a river that has nowhere to go.  The eye longs for some blister on the horizon, some marker of distance, but finds none.  occasionally there are clouds; often there is rain, but these are only colours: the laundry-white of the cumulus, the black mantle or the monsoon.

Or more ominously

Throughout June, Tikka’s soldiers made their way across the summer plains of Bangladesh. . . . They were explorers, pioneers of cruelty, every day outdoing their own brutality, every day feeling closer to divinity, because they were told they were saving Pakistan, and Islam, maybe even the Almighty himself, from the depravity of the Benglais; in this feverish, this godly journey their resolve could know no bounds.

As Anam explains in the valuable interviews included at the end of the book, the characters are what matter in the book.  In fact they are powerfully drawn, with her grandmother as the model for Rehane.   Often the characters are caught with conflicting emotions, unsure of what they are feeling and which demands to prioritize. And always, Anam also wants readers to learn about Bangladesh and the destructive power of war.

I strongly recommend this book to all readers.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 4:12 pm

    I discovered this author when I read The Good Muslim for the Shadow Man Asian prize. I’m delighted to read a review of this novel, I agree, her writing is beautiful and I will be reading this one soon too. Thanks.

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