A Golden Age is a beautifully written book. The writing is simple and straightforward and creates a vivid picture of life in Bangladesh. It is the story of Rehana, a widow, and how she seeks to protect her children during the Bangladeshi War of Independence in 1971. Her student children want to become active in the war and Rehana reluctantly adds her support. But soon she is pulled more and more into supporting her adopted land of Bangladesh. The war is brutal and is graphically described and the narrative is gripping. The relationships between Rehana and her children, the Major and her neighbours are all very well drawn and perceptive.
Rehana is forced to make some hard choices - but having once lost her children in a custody battle she is determined to do anything within her capability to keep her son and daughter safe.
In the west the Pakistan-Bangladesh conflict is hardly remembered so this novel is a timely reminder of the recent history of the region. A brilliant debut - I do hope she has some more books in the pipeline!
It took me a while to get in to this story and I must confess there were times when I considered giving up on it. Usually if a book has not gripped me by page 50, I set it aside. I had read beyond page 50 in this one and was still not gripped so according to my usual system, I should have given up on it; however, there was something about it that made me want to continue...and I am so glad I did.
The more I read, the more I wanted to read. This book is interesting on different levels. Firstly, there are the characters, richly developed and emotionally realistic. No-one is perfect in this book, and for this reason, the reader is more inclined to relate to them. Then there is the detail - Bangladesh culture is brought vividly to life with descriptions of the foods, clothing, transport, weather, etc. Details that might seem trivial, like how an unexpected downpour drenches the female protagonist and makes her sari cling to her in an embarrassing manner, are not gratuitous but rather help us to understand what her life was life a little more clearly. And then there is the history - Bangladesh's struggle for independence from Pakistan is the backdrop of this novel. It does not dominate the novel and at no point does the book feel like a political tome, but it is certainly there, affecting the characters' lives and influencing their choices. The characters have to make decisions and take actions that most readers will never face and this gives the story a powerful element, making the reader wonder what they would do if they were in the same situation.
This was an excellent read, covering the human element of Bangladesh's fight for independance in 1971.
The central character is Rahana whose primary role in life is to be a mother.
After the death of her husband she allows her two young children to go to their uncle and aunt's because she cannot afford to raise them. 18 months later circumstances have changed and she reclaims them, but the hurt stays with her throughout. Every year she throws a party to celebrate their return.
When they become students and politics starts to consume them, she is supportive but wary. Eventually the War of Independance arrives and supporting them means allowing her son to fight, her daughter her freedom.
As Rehana gets more and more drawn into the war she starts to sew saris to produce blankets, hides supplies for the rebels and cares for an injured man.
The characters are beautifully drawn, with powerful interactions. The war felt immediate without being gratuitous.
A fascinating, page turner.
Set around the civil war that led to the independence of Bangladesh, this novel - first in a trilogy - centres on a middle aged widow living in Dhaka, her two children and their friends. The writing is fine, not especially brilliant but not irritating either. The main characters are likeable and interesting enough, and the story is well paced. I learned a lot about the civil war, a conflict I'd not really been aware of, and it made me think of current conflicts in the world where people are suffering in the same way. It manages to convey the tragedies of war without becoming overly graphic. It also shows the courage of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, particularly the principal character who quietly gets on with 'doing her bit' to support the struggle. It's understated, and never melodramatic. Perhaps a bit too understated.
Despite the potential for real emotional pathos, there is something oddly unengaging about the story. It's hard to put my finger exactly on why. There are so many events that could be truly tear-jerking, but because we don't get to know the characters concerned well enough, it doesn't have the impact it should. There's no real emotional connection with the characters. I think perhaps the author falls into the trap of telling, not showing. So we're informed that one character secretly loves another, told that another character is the best friend of another and then that they have died, but we don't really see it, and therefore events either seem to come out of nowhere, or they have no real impact. I never worried about the characters who were away at war.
It isn't a bad story at all, it's just not exciting and inspiring. I'm not sure if I'll bother to read the sequels - I'm not really invested enough in the characters. However I can see that a lot of other readers have really enjoyed it, and so others may find they enjoy it more. Maybe it was just a bit too subtle for me. For a really powerful story about civil war, try 'Half of a Yellow Sun' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche.
on 29 May 2012
To my shame, I can recall little of the Bangladeshi War of Liberation; merely a few news headlines which washed over me, undigested and unabsorbed. I was young and too busy having a good time to be interested in events in another country, far away.
This book, therefore, was an education. It could have been dull and worthy but, far from that, it held my attention all the way.
The characters are beautifully drawn and fleshed out; personalities closely observed and depicted in words. Regardless of race, language or nationality, we all of us know a Mrs Chowdhury or a Parveen.
At face value, it's the story of a family and their friends as they struggle to survive the war. Ultimately, it's a book about love - mother love, sexual love, love between friends, familial love - and just how far one woman is prepared to go in the name of love.
on 19 May 2012
As a British born & bred Bengali with roots from both Bangladesh & Calcutta who only vaguely remembers the Bangladesh War of Independence I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of living through the war in the eyes of a Calcutta born woman Rehana who sacrifices yet survives the turmoil & tragedies that befall her. She is a brave but conventional Bengali who 'moves on ' no matter what. The author has depicted the Bengali woman's mentality extremely well with the little Bengali nuances and colloquialisms. The language is simple but very descriptive with all characters well defined, all emotions truly believable.
It has an easy pace yet keeps the pages turning. This could have been a depressing book but instead takes you to 1971 to relive the exciting but difficult times with historical fact. A big read for a small price.
Like most Americans, my knowledge of Bangladesh has largely been limited to tragic news reports of devastating flooding every few years. However, unlike most Americans, I do at least know that Bangladesh was formerly part of present-day Pakistan, and fought a war for independence in 1971. That war is both the main catalyst in this debut novel, and the backdrop for the drama that Anam presents.
The story revolves around Rehana, a widow in her late 30s, whose main concern in life is her two teenage children, Maya and Soheil. In a prologue (the book opens with the stunning line "Dear Husband, today I lost our children."), we learn how Rehana's children were legally awarded to her brother-in-law following the death of their father, and of her struggle to regain custody. Although the separation only lasted a year and a half, it left a deep scar of guilt and remorse in Rehana that never healed. Every year she holds a party to celebrate their return, and it is at the 1971 edition of that party that we meet her children, neighbors, and friends for the first time. This party establishes the domestic tranquility that will soon be shattered by the coming war.
Rehana is apolitical herself, but soon finds herself dragged into the struggle for independence via the strong political views of her university-going children. What starts as something she can largely ignore becomes less so as atrocities on the part of the Pakistani army become more than just abstract bad news, and start to affect her friends and family. This is the kind of material that could easily become a weighty saga, or melodramatic soap opera, but Anam deftly avoids the pitfalls of both. As the civil war grows more intense, and her children become more involved and are more at danger, Rehana maintains a quiet determination to support them and do what she can for them. This theme of a mother's love is central to the story, and is carried out with pitch-perfect restraint. In fact, I suspect that it is a book that will be much more emotionally engaging for parents than non-parents. (I've definitely noticed that I respond to certain plots and themes much differently as a parent than I did prior to having a child -- and this is exactly the kind of story I don't think I would have connected with prior to having a child.)
The story unfolds in episodes over the course of nine months, with some leaps in time along the way. This is a nice technique that avoids the need to detail every single day along the way, and allows Anam to concentrate on what is meaningful. There are a number of compelling subplots, such as Soheil's love for a neighbor's daughter, Rehana's harboring and tending to a wounded rebel leader, and the children's blossoming into adults. In every case, she writes with compassion and heart for her characters without being cloying or sappy.
It's not a perfect book -- there are a few minor flaws, the foremost of which is a lack of glossary to the 50+ Urdu or Bengali terms used in the book. This isn't critical, but it is annoying. Another is the relative lack of sense of place throughout the book. The author could do a little more to create a truly vivid picture of Dhaka, as well as the Rehana's house -- neither really comes alive on the page. But these are relatively minor quibbles with a work as masterful and engaging as this. It's the first in a projected trilogy, and I can't wait for the next!
on 2 March 2009
I would agree to most of the other reviewers about the prose. This is a simply written but captivating read. However, by the middle of the book I was disturbed and shaking my head saying "Could this be true?"
The main character Rehana and her children Sohail and Maya move relatively freely in and out of Dhaka, and to India a potential enemy to Pakistan (eventually it does become its deadly enemy by December 1971) -- all this during a Pakistani military occupation complete with imposed nighttime curfews. Didn't the Pakistanis issue travel papers and check people's movements? Rehana is unwittingly drawn into the independence movement, and ends up sheltering an officer of the independence movement in her house for months. Her son bombs the power station and miraculously returns, and yet they are still able to leave Dhaka apparently without a hitch. It is only at the end of the book that the Pakistani military finally catches up. Were the Pakistani military and intelligence that incompetent? After all they did have collaborators on the ground.
If it hadn't been for those misgivings, I would have given this book an easy five star.
on 22 April 2007
i just finished reading tahmima anam's "a golden age", a remarkable
first novel about a family's struggle in the background of the 1971
war. the story revolves around rehana, a mother of two university
going children who throw themselves into the war movement, bringing
the terror of war into every choice they make.
what i loved about the book was that anam wrote with great compassion
for her characters, but didnt make any of them sound or act like self
pitying losers. three relationships stood out for me -- rehana coming
to terms with her difficult relationship with her often inaccessible
daughter maya; rehana making sense of the recovering soldier who she
reluctantly hides in her house; rehana's son sohail and his beloved
silvi, who eventually forces him to choose between his loyalty and
judgement. the characters are anything but what i would have expected,
but what they do to survive the war sounds very intimate -- like
gathering old saris to stich kanthas for the soldiers and refugees,
swapping shirts among guerrilla brothers, the first glimpse of
refugees holed up inside concrete pipes.
she writes with much tenderness, and her descriptions feel very
natural. none of that rushdie-inspired heaviness. also, none of that
affected worship of courageous poor people. most of all, what i love
about this book is that she has captured something our generation has
been mourning -- the death of a war narrative that is owned by the
everyday bangladeshis, stories that we heard in half whispers in our
childhoods as told to us by our relatives.
on 25 June 2012
Until the end of 1971, Bangladesh, inhabited mainly by Bengalis, was known as `East Pakistan'. West Pakistan, now all that remains of Pakistan is, and was inhabited by a Punjabi majority. In 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (`Mujib',a Bengali) and his party won the parliamentary elections. Mujib was prevented from taking office by President General Yahya Khan, of West Pakistan, who along with many of his fellow Punjabis and Pathans held the Bengalis in low regard. He arrested Mujib in early 1971 and launched a vicious military assault on East Pakistan. Its aim was to decimate the Bengali population. During this operation, about a million East Pakistanis fled to neighbouring India and anything between 30,000 and 3,000,000 East Pakistanis were massacred. Had it not been for the intervention of Indian armed forces, many more would have been killed. By the end of 1971, Yahya's forces were defeated; Mujib was released, and soon after this East Pakistan divorced itself from West Pakistan and the republic of Bangladesh was born.
Tahmima Anam, the author of A Golden Age was born in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, 4 years after the end of the Bangaldeshi's struggle against the forces of West Pakistan. Yet, her novel which is set mainly in Dhaka during 1971 gave me the feeling that she had been an eye-witness of those troubled times.
The main character in the book is the widowed Rehana, a non-Bengali who lives in Dhaka. Both of her children become involved in the struggle against Yahya's forces. She tries to maintain her home as things gradually deteriorate all around her and her children become ever more deeply embroiled in the resistance to the murderous thugs (including her brother-in-law whose home was in West Pakistan), who had invaded their country. At first, I was lulled into thinking that Rehana was an innocent in a sea of turmoil, but as the tale unwinds, I learned that she also harboured secrets, some of which had nothing to do with the invasion of Yahya's forces.
The novel is beautifully written. Ms Anam gently creates the atmosphere of terror that was developing in Dhaka by subtle allusions to it. She resists the temptation to dwell on graphic descriptions of the atrocities performed by Yahya's forces to suppress the Bengalis in order to `restore order'. And when, on occasion, she does describe such atrocities, she says only sufficient to allow the reader's imagination to do the rest.
A Golden Age is laced with transliterations of Bangla and Urdu words, which will be understood by those familiar with the sub-continent, but may puzzle readers who are not. There is no glossary because Ms Anam follows in the footsteps of Salman Rushdie, who led the way, according to what my wife learnt from a conversation with Shashi Deshpande, in dispensing with such things. However, the inclusion of unexplained vernacular terms does not detract from the enjoyment of a book, which I can strongly recommend, nor its comprehensibility.