Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

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A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam was our Read Around the World’s Book Club choice for January. This book transported us to Bangladesh at the beginning of the 1970s, when Bangladesh (formerly known as East Pakistan) was on the cusp of independence.

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Like so often, this read was an opportunity for me to expand my knowledge of the world; am ashamed of how little I knew about Bangladesh’s history. Some critics say that the content lacks accuracy and that the viewpoint is very much biased, focusing purely on the Bangladesh perspective. For me, A Golden Age is a good piece of historical fiction, where the author has a personal perspective she wishes to share with her readers. Anam takes her own family’s story, especially that of her grandmother, as inspiration. Though not growing up in Bangladesh herself, she grew up with family stories of this incredible period in time and it is these stories she wants to keep alive.  She at no point claims to have written a book of pure historical content. For me, A Golden Age provided a beautifully told foundation for further learning. At its heart, this is primarily a family saga, with all the love, conflict, joy and heartbreak that this entails. Each character is an individual, each life inevitably intertwined with the political and social change of the time in question.

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I really enjoyed this book on a human level. I thought the main character Rehana, was wonderful. The sheer resilience of this woman was so well written and her personal journey from introverted widow to a woman, who wants to change her world (and that of her children) for the better, was not only inspiring but also very genuine. I also loved the contrasting characters of her children; Sohail, a student desperate to join the resistance and fight for freedom, who wears his heart on his sleeve and acts from the passion of his beliefs, and Maya, who keeps her emotions deeply buried, whose critical eye and sarcastic nature holds everyone at arm’s length. I thought that the mysterious Major, who comes into Rehana’s life, was most intriguing and really enjoyed how the slow burning chemistry between the two of them developed. What I am trying to say is, this book tells of what it is to be human in such extraordinary times.

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Of course, the political themes are powerfully present. Anam paints a vivid, detailed picture of the increasingly intense conflict between East and West and the consequences of this. The senseless violence, the inhuman torture, the persecution of the Hindu population and the plight of displaced refugees is written in stark detail. In my opinion, she writes with a respectful distance too, by using Rehana’s very human, compassionate and civilian perspective. This prevents the horror from becoming overwhelming.

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As a side note, when reading about Bangladesh’s war for independence, I found it striking that this is often referred to as a ‘struggle’, making it sound rather inconsequent when in actual fact it was an intense, horrific war that cost many thousands of lives (and here I include West Pakistan’s human losses too).

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A Golden Age is the first in a trilogy, the next is called The Good Muslim; needless to say I’ve already ordered it! To finish, a couple of links:

A Guardian review that I really enjoyed reading

An NPR article about Anam’s background

P.S. Isn’t the cover gorgeous?

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