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December 23, 2007

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Like Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie did with Half of A Yellow Sun, Tahmima Anam looks back to not-so ancient history in her novel A Golden Age, which takes place in 1971 during the Bangladesh War of Independence. Anam’s approach also reminded me of Camilla Gibb’s in Sweetness in the Belly, as like Gibb she holds a PhD in Social Anthropology– definitely a valuable background for a creative writer. Which is not to say Anam writes like an academic, for her prose is stunning. Rather, I think, her background serves to underline that she knows well the story she tells.

Adichie and Anam vary greatly in their respective portrayals of war. Whereas Half of a Yellow Sun was exceptional in its multiple points of view, vividness, and unshy brutality, Anam tells a quieter story. Certainly not of a quieter war, of course, but her focus stays with one character– Rehana, a mother. The setting is primarily the family home, through the outside world creeps in inevitably. Rehana’s children, near-grown, are politically active in the fight for an independent Bangladesh, and soon her support for them involves burying munitions in her flower garden, taking care of an injured fighter, giving over her rental house for her son and his friends to use. And though the narrative stays quiet, Anam shows the brutal reality of war in a just a few choice images with an impact that is especially dramatic.

This story twists in the prologue, however. Rehana is a widow, and sooner after her husband died, she allowed her children to be taken away from her. I say “she allowed”, for this was what she felt occurred when Sohail and Maya were sent from their home in East Pakistan to live with Rehana’s late-husband’s brother in Lahore. Rehana gets her children back two years later, having erected a second house on her property to provide her with income and independence. But thereafter she feels indebted to her children for their time away from her, unsure of where to draw the line between their protection and indulgence– a dilemma that is particularly relevant in the heightened atmosphere of war. Further, where does Rehana’s fierce love for them end and selfishness begin?

I enjoyed this story very much, and the writing in particular. Of the Bangladeshi refugees, Anam writes, “And everywhere they went the memories argued for space, so that they forgot to cross the road when the lights were red, or overmilked their tea, or whispered into their newspapers as they scanned hungrily for news of home”.

Of what it was to live in such times: “There was always something… Every hiccup of the political landscape made its way to their door… [and] there was only this time, this life, this fraught and crowded era, to which they were bound without choice, without knowledge, only their passions, their loves, to lead and sustain them.”

Though I would agree that Anam has achieved something remarkable with A Golden Age, I was disappointed not to like it quite as much as the many rave reviews I’ve read of the novel. Though the plot held and the writing was gorgeous, the characters let me down at times. Rehana could be so unsure of her intentions and her feelings that her strength was muted and she could come across as wishy-washy. Also Rehana’s relationship with her daughter more sharply drawn would have illuminated both their characters.

It is notable, however, that Half of a Yellow Sun was Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s second novel, and Sweetness in the Belly was Camilla Gibb’s third. If Tahmima Anam is already so comparable with this novel– her very first– then certainly her career promises a grand future before her.

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