Book Review – “A Golden Age” by Tahmima Anam

a-golden-ageIn honour of today’s anniversary of the founding of Bangladesh, I give you — A Golden Age.

A year ago, I wrote about the launch of Tahmima Anam’s first novel, in my “Do I Want to Read Your Book?” series. Now I have accomplished my desire to read the book, and it has fulfilled everything that was promised that evening.

The book provides a bittersweet, personal tale of the events surrounding the creation of Bangladesh, as East Pakistan declared independence form Pakistan and fought for its own identity. While many of the events that befall the main family in the story are fictional, Ms. Anam reached into her personal history to base much of the tale on the life of her own grandmother. The account of everyday existence in the midst of turmoil appears simple at first, yet expands to reveal profound insights into personal identity in the context of family and country.

The events that led to the declaration of independence, and the troubling and frightening times that followed until it was finally achieved, weave almost seamlessly through the lives of the widow Rehana Haque and her two young adult children. While the young people have no doubts whatsoever about their own identity and allegiance, Rehana herself must struggle with hers: is she Bangladeshi, or does she truly belong in Pakistan, on the other side of India to the west, where she was born and grew up?

Rehana’s own trauma from previous losses stunts her and makes her afraid. Yet as she fights to protect her son and daughter — even while they plunge themselves deeply into the war for independence and remove themselves from her protection — she begins to fight also for herself. And as Bangladesh achieves its own identity, through tragedy, loss, and victory, she finds a way to recreate herself, both as a person and as a citizen of the new country.

A Golden Age does not get bogged down in the fine details of the politics and history of the war, but it does reveal them to the reader through the eyes of people who lived it all: the ideals, the betrayals, the battles, and the ultimate victory. The book is a story of exuberance, struggle, maturity, and identity — not just in the life of a newly-born country, but in the lives of the real people who gave birth to it.

[To read chapter one of this book online, visit the Shortcovers entry for A Golden Age.]

“A Golden Age” is golden indeed

It’s hard to imagine a war of independence, complete with genocide, as “a golden age,” but first-novelist Tahmima Anam chose the title of her book, set in such a war, with no irony at all. When you’re in the process of creating your very own independent country, as Bangladesh was in the early seventies, that is the moment in history when you can dream that anything at all is possible. The future can be as “golden” as you envisage it.

Last night was HarperCollins’s official launch of Anam’s novel, “A Golden Age,” at one of the “This is Not a Reading Series” events put on by Pages Books at the Gladstone Hotel ballroom. And “event,” once again, is the best word to describe it. As CBC reporter Aparita Bhandari remarked, when she and Anam settled into the wooden “thrones” on the stage, with elaborately draped silks serving as a backdrop, and floating candles set in several jewel-coloured vases around them, the setting felt more like they were about to experience a Bangladeshi wedding, rather than an interview about a book.

The luxurious stage, designed by Dream Party Décor, wasn’t the only mood-setter for the interview: dhol drummer and electro tabla artist ConTEJus played a set to begin the evening, creating melodic hints of a Bangladeshi atmosphere that resonated through the two women’s discussion.

Tahmima Anam is bright, intelligent, well-educated – and very funny. When an audience member asked how she grappled with her class privilege, she acknowledged that as one of the few educated people from a very poor country, she has great responsibility, “as Spider Man said.” Although she has a PhD in Social Anthropology from Harvard, she quipped that “grad school is a way to pretend you’re doing something while you figure out what you really want to do.”

In her case, of course, graduate school really did work out that way, although that wasn’t her original plan. She had grown up in a very cosmopolitan family, her father being a diplomat with the United Nations, stationed over the years in many different places around the world. Discussions at meal time revolved around articles each family member had found in the papers that day, which they brought to dinner to share with the others. So these discussions, including stories about the war which had created her country, gave Anam a very adult outlook on the world, at a very young age.

But it was while she was doing an oral history project for her PhD, and went to Bangladesh for the field work, that she talked to many people who had participated in and survived the war of independence. She began to think, “What a shame for me to write an academic book that maybe five people would read.” And so her novel was born, as she attempted to bring the war experience to life by digging into her own family history for stories. She reasoned that fiction can transport readers to other times and places in ways that academic writing does not.

When asked why she didn’t become a journalist instead, and follow in the footsteps of her father when he left the U.N. and founded a newspaper in Bangladesh, Anam joked that journalists “have deadlines, have to verify sources, and tell some semblance of the truth.” Yet she is politically active, and does in fact do journalistic work as well. For example, since she now lives in the U.K., she is occasionally asked to write about Bangladesh for the British press, “whenever something terrible happens.” As part of the responsibility she carries as an educated Bangladeshi, she believes she must act as a spokesperson for her country to the rest of the world, extolling its accomplishments and virtues, in balance with the frequently negative facts that are usually emphasized.

But for the moment, her main way of doing that will be via her novels, of which “A Golden Age” is only the first of three. Anam believes that the job of a novelist is to humanize problems, so they become more real through their characters’ experience, and less factually dry. She cited global climate change as one example that pertained especially to Bangladesh. Hearing about climate change through the experience of characters in a novel might have more impact on readers than if facts were presented in a more academic way.

After attending last night’s event, do I want to read Tamima Anam’s book? I am not always comfortable about novels set in times of war, but Anam is so articulate, so knowledgeable and empathetic, and above all, so enthusiastic about this story and the potential hope it offers, that I think I really would like to read her book.