Birth of a nation

Posted on August 12, 2012

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The boat of affection ascends mountains – Bangladeshi proverb

When I come to the end of this reading journey I’m sure I’ll have at least ten books that will sit alongside those books I read over and over and never lend for fear of not getting them back. These aren’t always literary heavyweights by the way, every few years I re-read Dorothy L. Sayers and Nancy Mitford.  But I’m pretty sure, even this early on the path, that Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age will become an ‘unlendable’.   It is a novel that has everything.  A great structure, beautiful prose, a compelling story, interesting characters and a perfect sense of time and place.   It has also been edited so smartly – nothing superfluous, nothing lacking.    From its opening sentence “Dear Husband, I lost our children today”, through its descriptions of a little bit of cricket and a lot of weather (being British we know a good description of weather when we see one and cricket too for that matter), and its almost Sophie’s Choice ending, Anam ensnares us in a tale that despite its brevity feels epic.

The book opens when Rehana Haque’s children are given by the Family Court to her brother-in-law and his sterile (I use this adjective advisedly) wife in West Pakistan.   Incapacitated by grief at the death of her husband, Rehana has been unable to fight to keep them and so is left alone in East Pakistan with only the support of her Gin Rummy friends to keep her going.  Slowly pulling her life together, and on the advice of one of these friends, she builds a house in her garden which she rents to a Hindu family.  With an increase in fortune and emotionally stronger, she finally brings her children home.  The years pass and life is good to the Haques.  But Rehana has a secret.  She has stolen the money to build the house in the garden – the first indication of the lengths to which she’ll go to get and keep her children.  We fast forward to March 1971 and the beginning of Bangladesh’s war of independence. Both Rehana’s children, Sohail and Maya are determined to fight for independence and Rehana, unable to deny her children, is dragged into the fight when the Hindu tenants are forced to flee and the house in the garden is used to house rebels, their weapons hidden under the rose bushes.   War in A Golden Age is then seen through the eyes of those who can only participate from the sidelines, those that it happens to. We follow Rehana as she tries to shop at the market, avoid the curfew, visit refugee camps and secretly care for an injured rebel major.   But although intertwined with the family narrative, war is not what this book is really about. It’s a book about motherhood.  Thankfully, Anam avoids making any crass metaphorical link between mothers and the motherland, even though it must have been tempting as the war lasted a perfectly gestational 9 months.  Rather, it’s about the different ways in which mothers deal with survival – their own and their children’s.  It’s about the pulling close and pushing away that is often a constant in the difficult relationship between mothers and daughters, and ultimately, it’s about what a mother will (or won’t) sacrifice to protect her children.

I really don’t want to give anything away.  The emotional wallop of the book hurts as sweetly as Shakespeare’s parting sorrow. I would hate to deny you one second of it.

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