In 1971 East Pakistan was on the brink of war. The recent elections had done little to allay the fears that poverty, disease, bigotry and natural disasters have created. It is a country besieged by civil unrest but it is also a country of families whose lives were consumed with the day to day of getting by and who could not afford to turn their efforts to politics even in those circumstances.
Author TahmimaAnam uses this moment in history as her starting point for The Golden Age. Unaware of the coming troubles, hope in the household of single mother Rehana Haque is a tangible thing. Years ago after the death of her husband she had to bowed to tradition, family pressure and inequality when she was forced to give up her son, Soheil and daughter, Maya. That sad and mortifying experience instilled a lifelong insecurity and guilt in Rehana that hasn’t dissipated even now that her son and daughter are almost grown.
Rehana’s careful dreams for her children shatter when the Bangladesh War for Independence begins. This is not a war of faraway battles. This is happening on Rehana’s doorstep. In short order Soheil and Maya are caught up in the demonstrations and rebellion and Rehana’s life is no longer about creating a better future for her family it’s about keeping her family alive in the immediate future.
In the quality of the writing, The Golden Age is definitely divided in two. This division isn’t deliberate; it’s the result of the second half of the novel being so much stronger than the first. Granted the drama quotient would naturally be ramped up to the sky in the second half because hey there’s a war. However given how well Anam handles the chaos, complexities and drama of politics and relationships once the war starts it’s surprising that she was unable to build a similar level of interest if not urgency into the Haque family’s back-story and earlier struggles. Not to mention the history that lead to the Bangladesh War of Independence itself.
Although Anam does not stint on fascinating and diverse culture elements that are specific to the Bangladeshi and Pakistanis she is still able to make The Golden Age is a universal story of mother love and war. Do not kid yourself that because the novel takes place in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh that this is about things that only happen in distant lands. Sadly, looked at event by event the plot could be set anywhere in the world and at any time period.
Once Anam gets her characters and plot to a boil, The Golden Age takes off. Suddenly the book gains authority and empathy over the historical and intimate elements of the story and a really good novel miraculously appears.
P.S. If you are a movie fan you will be know that the author completely goofed with a reference to the movie Cleopatra. Don’t let it hold you back. Bad fact checking is annoying but in this case the novel is worth taking a deep breath and moving on.
And. Here is the jacket from the hardcover. How much more interesting and inviting is this than the insipid image and design of the paperback?