Tahmima Anam: her second novel’s ‘insight places it in the highest league’. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Independence has cruel consequences, and these are brought into focus by Tahmima Anam’s second novel, which follows the success of her debut, A Golden Age, set during the turmoil of Bangladesh‘s 1971 war of independence. The Good Muslim, set in the aftermath of that conflict, is a devastating account of two siblings, Maya and Sohail, negotiating life in a new nation haunted both by the past and by chilling presentiments of the future.
- Good Muslim
- by Tahmima Anam
This haunting is felt most keenly by Maya, a doctor returning home after some years away. Anam describes Maya’s memories with an unflinching realism: “She remembered the sight of dead men with their hands tied behind their backs, their faces lapped with blood, and she remembered every day she had worked in the camps, scooping bullets out of men with nothing but a spoon and a hunter’s knife.”
Maya and Sohail and their relatives have all been radicalised in their own ways, invaded and transformed by interests much larger than themselves. Anam’s intelligent style is perfectly suited to the dissection of this new, altered Bangladesh, a country of hypocrisies, doubts and strange metamorphoses. The greatest shock for progressive Maya is encountering her beloved brother, who has sunk his horror at his own involvement in the war into the comforts of extreme religious conservatism. As the novel progresses, the two characters become more entrenched in their positions and their final clash of principles is shattering yet inevitable.
Maya’s medical knowledge, her worldliness and her independence as a woman give her a clear view of the injustices and ignorance around her. Although Maya is a strong counterpoint to the gendered abuse which is one of the themes of the book, Anam is too realistic to make her a blazing, all‑saving heroine. One of Maya’s most tormenting realisations is that there are some perpetrators who abuse not only with impunity but with the full support of society.
All this may make The Good Muslim sound heavy – but it isn’t. Its clarity, alacrity and succession of brief, vivid scenes give the characters room to breathe. Maya is immediately impressive but Anam’s acuity cuts deepest in her treatment of Sohail. In this young man, nationalism, machismo, conservatism and denial mix to create a tragic archetype. His fervour is a crutch for his trauma, guilt and grief, his certainty built on shaky foundations. His is a flimsy, self-constructed identity which eventually must crash down.
The Good Muslim is about a national victory that does not feel like a victory, a liberation that is a damnation for many. Anam is one of a generation of writers with a subcontinental heritage whose themes are politicised and universal. The Good Muslim uses a specific history to identify issues that resonate in places and times far beyond post-independence Bangladesh, and it is this pertinence that makes The Good Muslim not just an interesting novel but an important one.