As I finished the last page of Tahmima Anam’s The Good Muslim the tears were streaming down my face. Half an hour later, I still could not stop crying.
I’m not sure if Anam just caught me on a day when I was feeling vulnerable or if it was all down to the power of her writing, but there was something about this novel which was truly heart-wrenching.
The Good Muslim is the second in what is to be a trilogy, based on one family in Bangladesh throughout the country’s short but turbulent history.
The first in the series was A Golden Age, set during Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan in 1971. Widow Rehana Haque is barely aware of the growing political tensions around her as she concentrates on bringing up her two teenage children Soheil and Maya. But the war is soon on her doorstep and as Maya and Soheil become involved in the rebellion, she too must decide how far she is prepared to go in the name of the country’s independence.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Golden Age, both for what I learnt about a country of which I am shamefully ignorant, and for the powerful characters and narrative Anam created. So when The Good Muslim was released, I wasn’t quite sure where the story could go next.
I shouldn’t have worried. If anything, the second novel is even better than the first.
It is now more than ten years after the end of the war, and for many revolutionaries the aftermath has been a disappointment. The country is ruled by a dictator, former criminals have not been punished and there is growing religious extremism.
After several years as a doctor in poverty-stricken areas of the country, Maya returns home to Dhaka where she immediately feels out of place. She cannot reconcile her experiences with the lives her friends now live. They have moved on from the war, made money in the new Bangladesh and are enjoying settling down with their families and holding lavish parties.
But as much as Maya feels alienated by this, her biggest concern is the change in her own family.
Her much-loved brother Soheil has transferred his zeal for revolution, to religion. With followers throughout the country, Soheil has little time for Maya or the urchin son he leaves in the care of a group of female devotees. He disapproves of Maya’s attempts to interfere as well as her non-believing ways, and she despairs at their ever returning to the easy comradeship of their past.
This is a novel about many things – it is about loss, both personal and political. It explores the abuses of the past and the need for some sort of recognition and reconciliation. And it is about how underneath faith and idealism you will often find broken and guilt-ridden souls.
Anam’s prose is confident and unflinching as she tackles issues of gender, religion and politics. And while Rehana and Soheil remain in the background in this novel, Maya is a complex, endearing and ultimately fallible character who you do not want to let go of at the end. Thank goodness there is still one more novel to go.
And as to why The Good Muslim made me cry?
It was for Maya – for her idealism, for her frustrations in trying to put the world to rights and for her self-recrimination when she fails.
It was for Soheil – for his inability to remain connected to his family as he seeks solace from a higher power, and his failure to make peace with his younger self.
And if was for revolutionaries everywhere. At a time when we are seeing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, it is disheartening to be reminded how easily those bids for change can be hijacked in the aftermath, and how so often the will of the people becomes forgotten when a new world is forged.
I cannot recommend The Good Muslim enough, it is one of the year’s highlights for me. But while part of me wants you to pick up a copy right away, I’d urge you to read A Golden Age first. Don’t miss this opportunity to get to know Maya and Soheil in their younger days – it helps so much in understanding the adults they become.
And meanwhile , I must wait patiently for book number three…..
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book The Good Muslim by the publishers.