Continuing my reading of this year’s Man Asian longlist, I find myself in Bangladesh. Tahmima Anam’s first novel, A Golden Age, won the old Commonwealth Writers’ First Book Prize, so she’s got a good record. I can’t be totally sure, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any Bengali literature – I am, in fact, not even completely sure that’s the correct adjective to describe literature from Bangladesh. Nevertheless, with a such a provocative title, how could I not dive in?
The war is over. Maya has returned home to Dhaka after spending time in the country, looking after women’s health in a remote community. But things have changed in the seven years since she’s been home. Her mother is unwell, and her brother’s wife has died. Sohail, her brother, is not taking it well, and retreating into his new-found religion, which Maya finds off-putting. But will familial loyalty win out, or has Sohail completely turned his back on his sister, mother, and son?
My knowledge of the Bangladeshi Civil War is, how you say, non-existent, so I was having to try and work out some context while getting on board with the plot. This was kind of difficult, because Anam splits the novel into two parallel timelines, one in 1971, and one in 1984. Switching back and forth between the two, she tries to highlight the pre-war Sohail and the post-war version, but doing so on an almost chapterly basis has the effect of simply confusing the reader. It took me a good while to get a handle on what was going on, and I’m not sure the whole thing wouldn’t have been served better by keeping the whole thing linear, and presenting it in two parts.
Sohail himself should be a fascinating character – a man who has turned to radial Islam after the war, desperately trying to find some sense of meaning in his life. It is ironic, of course, that it should be his mother who casually hands him a copy of the Qu’ran in the hope he might find a small sliver of hope – his eventual rejection of his family in exchange for the word of God is heartbreaking.Anam really runs with the idea that people turn to religion in times of need, and it is nowhere more obvious than here. Sohail is so devastated by the war, so dead inside, there is nothing for him to do but turn to a system of belief he used to mock with his sister.
His son, though, is perhaps the most interesting character here. Zaid is young and impressionable, but without a strong parental figure, he has become a wild child. Both his parents are so caught up in living the religious life, it seems as though they have forgotten they have a child that needs to be loved and cared for, not indoctrinated with ridiculous religious values. Maya deems it her job to educate him properly, but her attempts to do so are constantly rejected by Sohail, as well as the women he surrounds himself with. This ultimate rejection of knowledge in favour of faith – by denying your son a proper education – should really be punishable by law, but here, it simply becomes another symptom of the rift that has formed between these two siblings.
Maya herself seems like an intelligent young woman – her work in the country as a obstetrician during and immediately after the war is noble, and well intentioned. Which is perhaps the fundamental problem I have with the novel. It’s hard not to view the debate here as a simple liberal lady doctor = good; radical Islamic man = bad. It’s a deeply natural reaction for me to hit both of those points of view, and Anam does the same here. It is not until the very end that we get a sense that, perhaps, it’s not as cut and dry as the past 250 pages would have us believe. The revelation about Maya’s true work after the war is, I think, supposed to be shocking, but to be honest, I was on her side. The work she was doing was perfectly believable, and indeed, necessary, I think. Similarly, the final sequences, in which Sohail is forced to confront whether or not he truly loves his son provides us with a sense of redemption on his behalf, but it comes as too little, too late.
There are some interesting ideas bubbling underneath the surface of The Good Muslim. But I’m not sure Anam ever manages to reach for the really, really tough questions, and force us to think about how religion, war, love – all those big things – affect us. These are big, big themes to be tackling, and until the very end, there is not enough questioning or moral ambiguity to allow the reader to consider these issues carefully and properly.