The Good Muslim (2011) – Tahmima ANAM

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.

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11 thoughts on “The Good Muslim (2011) – Tahmima ANAM

  1. markbooks says:

    I’ve just started this one. Like you, I’ve already found myself flicking back and forth to check timelines. But I think it looks promising.

  2. […] Wandering Falcon – Jamil AHMAD (Lisa) The Good Muslim – Tahmina ANAM (Me) Rebirth – Jahnavi BARUA The Sly Company of People Who Care – Rahul BHATTACHARYA The […]

  3. […] a Novel Approach and another member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize review team has reviewed this novel too, he’s not as keen as I […]

  4. Lisa Hill says:

    Matt, I don’t know why this has happened, I’m a subscriber to your blog but I didn’t get notification that you’d reviewed this one before I did.
    I’ve added a link to it now, but am bothered about why I missed it.
    Are there any others you’ve reviewed that I’ve missed? IG84??

    • Matthew Todd says:

      That is weird. I have no answer as to why that might be happening. Maybe ask WordPress? All of my SMALP stuff can be found if you click the logo on my page, though.

      I haven’t done 1Q84 yet. I plan on (finally) finishing it tonight, though.

  5. […] See my ANZ LitLovers review and Matt’s at A Novel Approach. […]

  6. winstonsdad says:

    I enjoyed this I felt the ideas behind the book ,maybe better than the story itself a musing on what is a good muslim more than anything ,all the best stu

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Yes – I love the idea of a novel exploring what it means to be a good Muslim, particularly in today’s climate. I remain unconvinced that this is the best novel to explore it, though.

  7. […] Wandering Falcon – Jamil AHMAD (Lisa; Stu; Mark) The Good Muslim – Tahmina ANAM (Me; Lisa) Rebirth – Jahnavi BARUA (Fay) The Sly Company of People Who Care – Rahul […]

  8. […] you missed them before, you can also see Matt’s from a Novel Approach and mine here at ANZ […]

  9. […] make him more or less “Asian”? Should we be looking instead to, say, Anam’s The Good Muslim, which deals with a fully internalised national struggle for both identity and power, free from […]

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