A Golden Age is meant as testimony. Using her family’s experiences as inspiration for her debut novel, Tahmima Anam tells the story of the Indian subcontinent’s other partition—the nine-month war that ended in 1971, separating West and East Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Anam, an expatriate Bangladeshi and an anthropologist by training, is a keen, sympathetic witness for her heroine, Rehana Haque, a widow living in a middle-class enclave of Dhaka.
Rehana is one of the millions of ordinary people caught up in the Bangladeshi independence movement, in this case through the activism of her college-aged children, Sohail and Maya. Most of the novel’s action takes place within Rehana’s home and an adjoining house, called Shona, which swiftly becomes the center of her world, as Sohail and his friends turn it into a guerrilla headquarters. Anam’s eye for historical detail is sharp: When Shona’s tenants abandon the house, Rehana wraps their plates in censored newspapers, with “advertisements for Tibet soap and Brylcreem framing empty spaces.” Yet in addition to the inevitable cataclysms of violence, A Golden Age captures smaller moments. As Rehana flees Dhaka, she thinks, “So she had locked up the two houses and draped sheets over the furniture—she had seen her father do the same, a long time ago, when they had lost Wellington Square. She wondered if it made her a refugee, this train, this distance, the sheets on the furniture.”
Anam’s vision of life in these extreme circumstances is powerful—a sense of vulnerability mitigated only by the comfort of routine—but the Haque family saga is less convincing. Anam tries to do for Bangladesh what Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man (1988) did for the India-Pakistan partition of 1947, what Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993) did for India in the 1950s, and what Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1996) did, most brilliantly of all, for India during emergency rule in the mid-’70s. That is, she uses one family’s story to animate the larger historical narrative taking shape around it. The earlier books rendered familial drama with enough care to give it the same epic weight as war, riot, and political decree, and their protagonists feel the full force of the violence around them. But A Golden Age fails to develop the traumatic year after Rehana’s husband’s death, and Anam seems reluctant to allow her main characters to suffer as much as their friends and neighbors. The novel also refers to Rehana’s suspect status as an outsider—she is a native speaker of Urdu, not Bengali, with roots in India—without explaining how she comes to live in East Pakistan while her family resides in West. However, A Golden Age is the first of a planned trilogy, so perhaps in the next installment Anam will pick up these threads and others left hanging.