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A Golden Age: A Novelby Tahmima Anam
Synopses & Reviews
As young widow Rehana Haque awakes one March morning, she might be forgiven for feeling happy. Today she will throw a party for her son and daughter. In the garden of the house she has built, her roses are blooming, her children are almost grown, and beyond their doorstep, the city is buzzing with excitement after recent elections. Change is in the air.
But none of the guests at Rehana's party can foresee what will happen in the days and months ahead. For this is 1971 in East Pakistan, a country on the brink of war. And this family's life is about to change forever.
Set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence, A Golden Age is a story of passion and revolution, of hope, faith and unexpected heroism. In the chaos of this era, everyone — from student protesters to the country's leaders, from rickshaw'wallahs to the army's soldiers — must make choices. And as she struggles to keep her family safe, Rehana will be forced to face a heartbreaking dilemma.
"The experiences of a woman drawn into the 1971 Bangladesh war for independence illuminate the conflict's wider resonances in Anam's impressive debut, the first installment in a proposed trilogy. Rehana Haque is a widow and university student in Dhaka with two children, 17-year-old daughter Maya and 19-year-old son Soheil. As she follows the daily patterns of domesticity — cooking, visiting the cemetery, marking religious holidays — she is only dimly aware of the growing political unrest until Pakistani tanks arrive and the fighting begins. Suddenly, Rehana's family is in peril and her children become involved in the rebellion. The elegantly understated restraint with which Anam recounts ensuing events gives credibility to Rehana's evolution from a devoted mother to a woman who allows her son's guerrilla comrades to bury guns in her backyard and who shelters a Bengali army major after he is wounded. The reader takes the emotional journey from atmospheric scenes of the marketplace to the mayhem of invasion, the ruin of the city, evidence of the rape and torture of Hindus and Bengali nationalists, and the stench and squalor of a refugee camp. Rehana's metamorphosis encapsulates her country's tragedy and makes for an immersive, wrenching narrative." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Tahmima Anam's first novel is a generous act of creative empathy. Born in Bangladesh four years after the nation won its independence from Pakistan, the author grew up abroad and now lives in London. Yet from her family's stories and her own research, she has crafted a compelling tale steeped in her native land's diverse culture. 'A Golden Age' chronicles a young widow's hesitant heroism during the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) convulsive year 1971, when rebels, including the widow's teenaged son and daughter, battle an army employing genocide and torture to subdue Pakistan's breakaway eastern region. Rehana Haque is an unlikely hero. A prologue set in 1959 shows her losing a custody battle with her wealthy brother-in-law Faiz. 'Poor, and friendless,' 26-year-old Rehana lacks the confidence to assert that her children belong with their mother. When the judge asks, 'What would your husband want?' she admits, 'He would want them to be safe.' Faiz convinces the judge that Maya and Sohail are not safe in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city, roiled by strikes and demonstrations; they are sent to live with him in West Pakistan, a thousand miles away. The prologue closes with Rehana's rueful memories of her husband, a cautious insurance executive who foresaw and forestalled every possible danger to his children and his much younger wife — except the sudden heart attack that left Rehana unable to prevent Faiz from taking them. Twelve years later, as the main action begins, Rehana is preparing the party she throws each year to celebrate the day in 1961 when she brought her children back to Dhaka. How she got the money to reclaim them remains a mystery for the moment, but we see immediately how fiercely devoted she is to Maya and Sohail, how anxious to shelter them from all harm. Days later, when the election that promised greater autonomy for Bangladesh is annulled and Pakistani troops descend on Dhaka, Maya and Sohail, now 17 and 19 years old, unhesitatingly join the resistance movement. Their mother simply hopes that these troubles will soon blow over, that 'the children would go on being her children ... living ordinary, unexceptional lives.' Though the author cogently sketches the necessary historical background, she doesn't unduly concern herself with political specifics. Her novel tells the story of one woman's personal odyssey. It's Rehana's love for her children that initially embroils her in the resistance, her fundamental decency that leads to her deeper involvement. When Sohail asks to use the second house on her property as a hiding place for guerrillas and weapons, she agrees. She's proud that her son is 'so fine, so ready to take charge. This was who she had hoped he would become, even if she had never imagined that her son, or the world, would come to this.' Her relations with Maya are thornier. Anam paints a nuanced portrait of a prickly daughter and maladroit mother that will ring true to any parent of an adolescent, though the circumstances here are grimly particular to a country at war. The discovery that Maya's best friend has been raped, tortured and murdered by soldiers shocks Rehana into supporting her daughter's decision to take a more active role in the resistance. It also gives her the backbone to stand up to her brother-in-law, who's involved in the army's brutal repression. 'Surely you don't want this on your conscience,' she tells Faiz, extorting his help to get a neighbor's son out of jail. The young man has been tortured so severely that he dies shortly after Rehana rescues him, and she slips across the border to India, fearful that Faiz may have betrayed her. The misery she sees in a refugee camp outside Calcutta reinforces Rehana's commitment to the struggle for independence. Readable and well crafted, 'A Golden Age' bears some traces of its first-time author's inexperience. In particular, Rehana's evolution from a fearful mother to a strong, resourceful woman seems too smooth. Wouldn't she have been more frightened about allowing her house to be used as a guerrilla base? Would her relationship with Maya have been so quickly transformed into easily expressed affection? Would she have been that blunt with Faiz, whose army ties give him so much power? This warmhearted novel might have plumbed more deeply the potential for evil in even the most honorable people confronted with life-threatening choices. When it counts the most, however, Anam does not flinch from complexity and horror of a more intimate nature than the details of atrocities. Nursing a wounded rebel in her home, Rehana falls in love with the first person who has ever bothered to ask about her deepest feelings, a man with whom she can share her most shameful secret. The closing pages achieve real tragic stature as we see Rehana quietly mourning on the day that Bangladesh will finally achieve independence. Amid the crowd singing 'How I love you, my golden Bengal,' she is surely not the only one who must live with the knowledge of what she did during a cruel war. Wendy Smith is the author of 'Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.'" Reviewed by Wendy Smith, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Amid tyranny, religious prejudice, torture, attempted genocide, and daring guerrilla maneuvers, Anam creates sparkling, suspenseful, and lacerating tragicomedy." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[R]emarkably moving and assured....Panoramic in its sense of history, intensely personal in its sense of drama — a wonderfully sad yet joyous read." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[An] illumination on how far a woman will go to protect her children's bodies and souls." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Mother love is at the heart of this impressive first novel by the Bangladeshi-born, American-educated Anam." Library Journal
"When reading Tahmima Anam's moving debut novel, A Golden Age, it will be helpful to keep two things close at hand: a box of tissues and the number to a really good Indian takeout." Christian Science Monitor
"Tahmima Anam's glittering debut, A Golden Age, comes at a ripe time for literature focused on South Asian women. Readers of Khaled Hosseini's brutal but magnificent A Thousand Splendid Suns will find similar pleasures in Anam's book..." St. Petersburg Times
"The second half of the novel acquires a taut, electric air, and I turned its pages as greedily as if it were a thriller. The start of A Golden Age may not be promising, but by its end this first novel has itself become a promising start." Michael Gorra, The New York Times Book Review
In her deeply moving debut novel, Anam tells the story of a young widow who becomes embroiled in the violent political turmoil in 1971 that transforms a brutal Pakistani civil war into a fight for the death for Bangladeshi independence.
About the Author
Tahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975. She attended Harvard University, where she earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology. A Golden Age is her first novel.
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