Canongate, £16.99, 293pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Good Muslim, By Tahmima Anam
Friday 20 May 2011
This second novel liberates its author from the mighty shadow cast by the success of her first, A Golden Age. Tahmima Anam's achievement are many in The Good Muslim, but the biggest, in some ways, is that she manages to make the "difficult second album" look easy. This is a quietly confident novel that shows no strain of critical expectation, and all the narrative and poetic skill of her debut.
Anam is evidently not finished with the preoccupying theme in A Golden Age: the legacy of war with (west) Pakistan that led to Bangladeshi independence in 1971, and the way in which formative periods of national histories affect individual destinies. Anam has spent time researching the war in Bangladesh and speaking to hundreds of fighters (her parents included), and has material rich enough to stretch to two novels without becoming tired.
This novel has a historical sweep that ranges from the Liberation War that left the nation's freedom fighters – the book's central characters – so psychologically ravaged, to the political turmoil, military coups and counter-coups of two subsequent decades. It ends in 1992, just after Bangladesh re-establishes its parliamentary democracy – a happy ending, of sorts.
Readers might feel an initial, false spark of déjà vu at the three protagonists. There is the widowed mother, Rehana Haque, and her children, Maya and Sohail, reminiscent of the key characters in A Golden Age - Rehana, the widowed mother who loses custody of her two children - but they are clearly not meant to be the same people. This second story is not a continuation of the first although it does seem as if Anam is exploring alternative worlds and parallel lives.
The ideological and emotional schism that builds between brother and sister is the central conflict in The Good Muslim. It represents opposing ways of moving forward in the shadow of the most savage of wars. Maya is a spirited, liberal-minded doctor who becomes a kind of allopathic healer, travelling from village to village to help women who have been raped, performing abortions when needed, delivering babies when they are not, witnessing misery all the while.
Maya's way of being a good Muslim is at odds with her older brother's methods. Sohail, once her soulmate and guide, has embraced a more extreme, cultish version of Islam which involves the burning of books, a shunning of the joyful pre-war life filled with music, friends and liberal values.
Every other conflict, and tragedy, emanates from this central disagreement between Sohail and Maya. Anam traces, sensitively and without any final judgement, the path that has led the siblings to their opposing points of view and the sense of moral rectitude that keeps them in their separate camps. Maya cannot face up to Sohail's "conversion" - she fights it, belittles it, and feels threatened by it ("Don't be so frightened of it. It's only religion", her mother whispers).
For his part, Sohail needs desperately to cling to the certainty of a faith from which he can seek redemption not just for the savagery he has witnessed in the war but also the savagery he has perpetrated. Maya realises, too late, that his religious fundamentalism is a result of the guilt of war, and that he needs it as a means to survive its psychological after-effects.
The themes are not just grim ones. Strong emotional undercurrents and intense passions course between characters. At times, the fabric of the narrative shimmers with poetry. Anam seems to be a novelist not so much luxuriating in the act of writing as in total control of it, using just the right words to create her stunning story.
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