The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

19 May, 2011

I’ve just finished Tahmima Anam’s second novel The Good Muslim just in time for her talk at the Festival of Asian Literature, a sequel to her debut, A Golden Age, which won the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize in 2008. I first came across Anam at the Galle Literary Festival in early 2009. I hadn’t previously come across her name but upon listening to her talk, I promptly purchased her book, devoured it, and fell in love with her story-telling. Because she tells her story in such an enchanting, quiet way that hides a stinging punch, rendering you speechless as you close the book. And she’s done it again.

A Golden Age
was about the Bangladesh Liberation War, told from the point of view of Rehana, a young widow, who has regained her two children and watched them grow as East and West Pakistan were flung into a brutal and vicious conflict. Sohail and Maya are educated, liberal, uninterested in religion and tradition. They join the war effort in different ways but both fighting for an independant and free country. And Rehana stays at home, waiting, hoping, hiding revolutionaries and only just catching the last, surprised, gasp of bittersweet love. I don’t think I’d read anything as beautiful and powerful as Anam’s tale.

The Good Muslim follows on from A Golden Age and is set immediately after the birth of Bangladesh. This time it is Maya, Rehana’s daughter, who tells the story. And it is about her and her precious brother Sohail, both having survived the war and living with the consequences of their actions. I think this was probably a much harder book for Anam to write. There is a depth to it told in deftly controlled prose. It is once again beautifully written and yet more devastating because it is sparse. There is no over-writing here. Anam deals with the consequences of war: the killings, the rapes, the fate of war babies, the shame and the injustices. Maya is now a surgeon, having spent the last seven years practicing medicine in rural areas, helping women give birth and treating and educating the people of the land. Sohail has become a religious man and we learn that this is part of the reason why Maya has left her home and family, too shocked and hurt that he has turned his back on everything he held sacred and turning into a person she no longer recognised.

The tale begins with Maya’s return to her family home upon the death of her sister-in-law, Silvi. She finds Sohail has set up a religious meeting place where people are constantly coming to hear him speak. And she meets Zaid, Sohail’s 10 year old son, uneducated except for what his father deems is acceptable to Islam, and still grieving for his mother. The tale skips back and forth between the present (1984) and the past (1977), just after the war has ended, and we slowly learn what has shaped Sohail’s choices, and Maya’s persistent attempts to understand her brother. How Sohail changed from a carefree brilliant student to a troubled soldier, scarred by his experiences and unable to help the woman he rescues and with whom he has fallen in love. How Maya herself, no longer an innocent revolutionary, has had to help heal her countrywomen by performing abortions. How she cannot smother her anger at the politicians of her country who have forgotten the sacrifices made in their name.

Rehana is here, growing older, happy her family are back together but not in the way she had imagined. Then there is Joy, Sohail’s best friend’s younger brother. He has lost both his brother and father and a finger in the war. He had left Bangladesh for the States soon after, but returned to Dhaka a year before Maya. And their friendship is re-kindled as Maya finds that there is hardly anyone amongst her revolutionary peers who still fans the flames for justice.

More problematic is Sohail’s extremism and the impact on his son, Zaid, as he is sent to a madrasa, away from all non-religious influences. None of Anam’s characters are perfect. They are all flawed in some way.

It’s a weighty book but Anam is so skillful as a writer that she doesn’t drown you in the injustices of history. Her writing is beautiful and flowing and carries you through the emotional journey of Maya’s tale. Anam’s training as an anthropologist shows in the content of her novel. Yet she is a wonderful writer of beautiful prose and I look forward to more books by her.

I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge and would like to thank the lovely people at Canongate Books for kindly sending me a copy to review.

9 Responses to “The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam”

  1. I have had A Golden Age on my radar since you mentioned it as being a great book when we met up in London last year, Sakura. Would I need to read this frist or can you read The Good Muslim as a stand-alone?

    • sakura Says:

      I would recommend reading A Golden Age first as it is apparently the first in the trilogy (yes, she’s writing a trilogy!) and you would get so much more out of The Good Muslim once you know the back story. Plus you really don’t want to miss out on A Golden Age!

  2. Iris Says:

    I hadn’t heard of Anam before, but I am intrigued after your glowing post about her work.

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    oh i love sound of this ,don’t know lot about this war ,so be a good way to find out with this book lovely review ,all the best stu

  4. Mystica Says:

    I am just reading a memoir of Madhur Jaffrey which also deals with the subject of Partition and the horrible effect it had on all Indians. The subject was a fairly new one for me. I do hope I am able to get to this one as well.

  5. amymckie Says:

    Wow, sounds powerful as does A Golden Age. I own it so will have to read it soon to get to this one! Great review.

  6. sakura Says:

    Iris: She’s getting a lot of publicity this time around. Give her a try if you can:)

    winstonsdad: I didn’t know much about it either before I read the book. Definitely an eye-opener.

    Mystica: I hope you do too:)

    amymckie: I think there was a play as well but I didn’t get around to seeing it. I think the book is definitely something you would be interested in.

  7. savidgereads Says:

    This is going on the list as is the first in the trilogy, there has been lots of talk about this and the Booker prize this year. What do you reckon?

    I would be interested in reading this one, your review is fantastic, do you really think that its best to read them in order or would going back to the first be ok?

    • sakura Says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if it appears on the shortlist. It would be great. I saw a Newsnight Review programme which kind of slated it though but I reckon it’s because the critics didn’t read the first book which I thought was unfair, so we’ll see. But I do think it’s best if you do read it in order as it follows on directly from the first book and you’ll understand the characters more, especially the choices they make in this novel.

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