FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA
First published in 2007, Tahmima Anam’s intimate civil war tale A Golden Age won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best First Book and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. The edition I read was published in 2012 as part of the Canongate ‘the Canons‘ list, which is a slightly strange mixture of ‘boundary-breaking’ books that Canongate decided either were already classics in their own right, or deserved to be. I’m not convinced the collection has aged that well, but it’s an audacious idea.
Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh (and now lives in the UK). This, her debut novel, is set in 1971 in East Pakistan, where Rehana Haque, a young widow, is throwing a party. Anam is great on description of food, Rehana is an excellent cook and the feast is described in loving detail. But civil conflict is brewing, a conflict that will lead to Bangladeshi independence, but will also lead to terrible violence and countless individual tragedies.
The civil conflict is the backdrop to the story of Rehana as she tries to do the best for her family, and to keep her children safe, while acknowledging that her freedom fighter son Sohail and idealistic daughter Maya, young adults now, are determined to live by their own principles, no matter what the cost. It also inevitably explores the regrets, disillusionment and compromises of middle age.
This emotive book covers a wide canvas, from Dhaka to Lahore to Calcutta. It provides an account of the heart-breaking decisions that families may be forced to make in wartime, about sacrifice and the toll of conflict and the particular cruelties of civil war. It also effectively illustrates the strength of maternal love, and the lengths a woman will go to to protect her children.
Rehana felt like a fully fleshed-out, flawed and multi-faceted character, as she trod her precarious path though life, but Rehana’s friends could seem more emblematic, while the guerrilla soldier who becomes important to Rehana felt positively wraithlike.
I enjoyed the book overall, but I found it reminded me of lots of other books. I don’t think I’ve read a book set in Bangladesh before, but I have read a lot of books focusing on the human cost of conflict, and this one covered some familiar territory, while feeling a bit episodic at times. It is undeniably an important story, sensitively told, which filled me in on a time and place that I was distinctly hazy about. However, the writing, although more than proficient, and often very beautiful, wasn’t transporting enough to raise this book above a 3 star read for me. The Good Muslim, a sequel to A Golden Age, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.