The eyes of the world have recently been turned toward the country of
Pakistan. Many have watched with sadness and concern as the turmoil within
Pakistan's government and among its citizens grows. Worse, Pakistani citizens
are dying leaders, angry militants and innocent bystanders alike.
First-time novelist Tahmima Anam has written a story of another tumultuous
season in Pakistan's recent history, the transition of East Pakistan to
independent Bangladesh. Her novel explores how far a person or group of people
will go for someone or something that they fiercely love, while offering a
timely glimpse of a not so distant conflict in Pakistan.
A Golden Age describes the Bangladesh War of Independence from the perspective of one woman, Rehana Haque. Rehana is a widow, a Calcutta-born resident of Dhaka (East Pakistan/Bangladesh) and most of all, a mother. Because the events of the story are viewed through Rehana's eyes, the love of a mother for her children supersedes all of the other loves and loyalties explored in the novel. Rehana will stop at almost nothing to provide for and protect her children, especially her son. Rehana's two children, Sohail and Maya, in turn, echo their mother's unwavering devotion in their own choices. Sohail's love for a neighbor girl cannot be broken, despite the girl's marriage and Sohail's involvement in the horrors of war. Maya's passion for a free Bangladesh consumes her.
The mixture of languages and cultures within the pages of A Golden Age make for a challenging but rewarding read. The chapters are sprinkled with Bengali and Urdu words that slow the reader struggling to understand their meaning. Footnotes or a glossary would have been helpful. Despite these slow points, Anam deftly shows her readers what the soon-to-be-newborn country of Bangladesh was like in 1971. Her descriptions of supporting and anecdotal characters combine with carefully recorded details of food preparation and other daily activities to allow the reader to envision a culture vastly different from his or her own. The story's blend of ordinary and emergency emphasizes the silent integration of routine and patterns of daily living into the culture of a nation.
The novel's limited point of view, provided by Rehana's character, also allows Anam to portray political unrest and violence from a domestic, almost comprehensible perspective. Riots, conflicts, wars the struggle for survival and the effects of that struggle on individual families are often difficult to grasp for those who have not experienced the events. Anam leads her readers to a more thorough understanding of Bangladesh's struggle for independence through the reactions and actions of one woman. Rehana's world revolves around providing food, shelter, spiritual guidance and happiness to her children. Rituals and tasks designed to accomplish these goals become much more difficult following the occupation of the Pakistan Army beginning on March 25, 1971. Rehana's efforts to maintain some control over everyday life during the conflict draws the reader into her reality and perhaps a bit closer to the reality of those who actually lived in East Pakistan during that time.
A Golden Age is written with absorbing specificity: Anam is confident in the purpose and placement of layered detail. Yet, the book also shines in its exploration of universal themes and human emotion. Family, loss, loneliness, sacrifice, religion and response to war many of the grand subjects of fiction are found in this tale of a mother who refuses to surrender her children or, in the end, her adopted country.
15 BookBrowse members reviewed this book through First Impressions. Read their comments here.
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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