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.

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gallefort

I’m so excited about this. The 4th annual Galle Literary Festival 2010 is scheduled for January 27-31, 2010 and I will be there! I’m lucky in that I can combine my annual trip home to visit my parents in Sri Lanka with a four day literary extravaganza in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Last year we saw Germaine Greer, Romesh Gunasekara, Pico Iyer, Moses Isegawa, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Tahmima Anam and Asitha Ameresekara amongst other great writers such as Thomas Keneally and Michael Morpugo. I love Romesh Gunasekara’s writing, in particular his novel The Match, and would have gone just to see him. I was lucky enough to get a place at his writing workshop which was truly inspirational. I was also reading V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage , at the time, so that was a bonus too. And who could resist hearing Germaine Greer’s rant on post-feminism?

It was my first literary festival, and I dragged my parents there as 1) I needed a driver to take me from Colombo to Galle (a three hour journey along the south west coast of Sri Lanka), 2) I have only one friend there and she was working and 3) I thought it would be a nice change in our holiday routine (try something new!) and that they’d enjoy it. We stayed at Aditiya, a boutique hotel which cost a small fortune but was totally worth it because the hotel staff actually left you alone, you could have your meals at anytime, anywhere on the grounds including on the beach, and they did the most divine massages. The Sri Lankan breakfasts which you had to order the night before was also incredibly delicious.

I spent as much time as I could at the literary festival while my parents checked out places for us to have lunch and dinner. I did manage to get my dad, who spent a large part of his career as a UN expert on Asia and Africa, to attend a couple of talks by Patrick French, V.S. Naipaul’s biographer, in conversation with the intrepid traveller Pico Iyer and a very entertaining and political talk by Moses Isegawa, the Nigerian writer.

What I didn’t expect was how interesting it was to listen to writers I had never come across or read before, and how that opened up new avenues in my reading life. My best discovery at this year’s Galle Literary Festival was the debut novelist Tahmima Anam who wrote A Golden Age, a novel about the birth of Bangladesh. She awed us with her poise and erudition and after her session I rushed out to join the queue to buy her book. I didn’t get a chance to read it until I got back to London as I was busy reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind on that holiday (I was going through my periodic scifi and fantasy phase), but when I did, I loved it.

Anam’s language and story-telling skill is so strong and vivid, I felt envious that someone could produce such a perfect first novel. The first line of A Golden Age just grabs you by the hair and sucks you in. It was emotional, yet restrained, punchy, bittersweet and utterly beautiful. She doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that happened to her country and people, but she tells her story with such dignity that the novel steers clear of sentimentality and nostalgia. You care about the characters and you want them to survive. Her protagonist Rehana Haque, wife, mother and lover is one of the quietest and strongest fictional women I have ever encountered. A synopsis of her novel can be found here. Buy it, borrow it, swipe it, just go and read it!

agoldenage