A GOLDEN AGE by Tahmima Anam. HarperCollinsPublishers: New York. January 2008. Hardcover. 276 pages. $24.95.
In a place where nature-born devastation is commonplace, civil war—a choice humans make against humans—must be the ultimate form of devastation. Still, from the ashes of one civil war came the birth of a new nation: Bangladesh. This birth is the backdrop of Tahmima Anam’s debut novel, A Golden Age. Juxtaposed with the torture, brutality, and suffering of war, Anam gives us the story of a sacrificing mother, a dedicated friend, an unintentional hero.
Before the war, Rehana Haque, an East Pakistani widow, was forced to give up her young children to family members in West Pakistan for a year. Though sadness and misfortune followed her through her young widowhood, Rehana focused on a single goal: reuniting with her children. Years later, in 1971, when her grown children are the pillars of her life, the growl of political discontent saturates the air. Rehana’s son, Sohail, joins the resistance and defends his country with the purpose of securing a free and sovereign Bangladesh. Daughter Maya involves herself at the university, where revolutionary students fuel protests.
Rehana tries to distance herself from the war despite her support of her children. Changes occur, nonetheless, as friends suffer personal hardships and as Sohail and Maya make increasingly complex conflict-centric requests of her. Rehana, never again wanting to fail her children, tackles every task set before her: feeding a stream of freedom fighters; hiding and caring for a wounded officer; trenching arms and weapons in her yard; begging for a friend’s son-in-law’s life; working in an overcrowded, understaffed refugee camp. As she realizes the impact of what she is doing, she gradually begins to accept that she, too, is a significant part of the movement for independence.
It is easy for a book chronicling wartime to fall into the explosive action-adventure genre. A Golden Age is more the story of the Haque family sorting out their own private conflicts, in spite of and because of the war of independence, than it is a full-fledged “war story.” One of the most important aspects of the book is the balance between the social and political world and the intimate world of the characters. Anam describes her desire for this kind of balance: “I chose to focus on Rehana and her family because I wanted to write about what happens to ordinary people in wartime—how they become heroic, how their relationships with one another are transformed. In other words, how the larger world affects the domestic world.”
A Golden Age quickly seduces the reader into Rehana’s world. Struggles and emotions are real. Hopes and disappointments are genuine. Anam’s writing is so fluid, so honest, and so compelling that the reader’s senses are engaged from beginning to end. The need to support Rehana on her journey is strong even when the questionable lengths Rehana goes to in order to reclaim her children are revealed. If one strips away the war, A Golden Age still has an exceptionally strong story in the meticulously constructed character of Rehana as well as the memorable characters around her. She is a testament to strength in her love for her children, for her friends, and for her country. While her children mature over the nine-month period of the book, it is Rehana who changes most profoundly while being true to her own self. She is a champion—a truly satisfying depiction of woman under fire.
“Rehana was not supposed to be the main character of A Golden Age,” explains Anam. “I intended for Rehana’s story to be taken over by that of her children, Sohail and Maya. This would have exposed the reader to many more aspects of the war, for instance the battlefield. But as I began to write, Rehana took over the story. I found that her very small domestic world was in fact a better way to write about the larger world. So she became the main character and the lens through which the reader sees the war.”
According to various interviews with the author, Rehana is based heavily on Anam’s maternal grandmother, who, when asked by Anam’s uncle if she would do many of the things Sohail asked of Rehana, responded in the affirmative. Tahmima’s mother, Shaheen, was a primary source as well, recalling the days of meetings, revolution, and war.
“I grew up listening to stories about the war,” continues Anam, “and I’d always felt very close to that time even though I was born four years after the end of the war. But so many people shared their stories with me—people from all walks of life. I felt incredibly privileged, almost like I had been given a gift. And the novel is in a way a response to that gift—my trying to give something back to those people.”
Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975, but she grew up elsewhere: Paris, New York, Bangkok. She now makes her home in London. The product of a globally-mobile family, Anam brings not only family perspective but a combination of curiosity and understanding to her writing. “A Golden Agereally came out of the [doctoral] research I did in Bangladesh from 2000-2002,” Anam states. “Most of the research didn’t make it into the novel, but I was so inspired by peoples’ stories that I felt I had to write a novel about the war.” A Golden Age is the first part of a projected trilogy; the next installment will focus on Rehana’s father, a rich Muslim zamindar, and part three will take place in contemporary Bangladesh.
With the intended trilogy, Anam hopes to reawaken the world to Bangladesh. “I want to put Bangladesh on the literary map,” she states. “There have been many writers out of India, and increasingly we’re seeing more writers from other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. I hope more writers will come out of Bangladesh, if for no other reason than to give readers a sense of the country that goes beyond the stereotypes of poverty and natural disasters.”
|Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.|