What comes after the founding of a nation, and all its joys and traumas, when revolutionaries turn into politicians and guerrillas become ordinary sons and daughters again? That's the intriguing question posed by Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim, set in Bangladesh after the 1971 war of independence.
Anam, a Dhaka-born, Harvard-trained anthropologist, carries forward to the new novel the characters of Maya and Sohail, a sister and brother first encountered in her harrowing 2007 debut, A Golden Age. That award-winning work was based on the wartime experiences of Anam's grandmother. Its sequel attempts to depict the war's survivors in a broader historical context, but is more successful in exploring their private tragedies than it is in portraying the convulsive emergence of a state.
As the novel opens Maya, a doctor, is trying to fit back into the professional life of Dhaka after a difficult stint in a village clinic. Her brother Sohail, a student leader who, like many of his contemporaries, had taken up arms, turns to religion as a balm for the shell-shocked state that the war's end leaves him in. He uses his growing piety to justify his neglect of his young son, and his relationship with Maya turns brittle as she challenges his parental failings. Anam handles the distance between them elegantly: "There were things she wanted to tell him ... Instead, he smoked so intently she could hear the tip of his cigarette as it burned toward him."
Anam follows her characters into very dark corners with an illuminating gaze. She writes movingly, too, about the mass rape of Bangladeshi women by Pakistani troops during the war, dwelling on both the horror and its ambiguities such as the women who decided to marry their rapists to escape the stigma, and the leader who praised the victims as heroines but said the nation had no use for children fathered by the enemy. (Maya also ends up joining one of the world's lesser-known wartime relief efforts: abortion clinics for rape victims, organized by international aid groups and the new Bangladeshi government.)
For all its lucid emotion, however, The Good Muslim delivers little political drama. This is surprising, given that Bangladesh's first years as a nation were a roller coaster of disasters and intrigues, ending in dictatorship. That tension has no chance to build in Anam's book because she structures it as a series of unchronological vignettes. The characters are constantly shrugging off momentous events that we wished Anam had explored more deeply, including the death of Bangladesh's founding father, Sheik Mujibur "Mujib" Rahman. "The famine, and then Mujib dying, and then the army came in and it was like the war had never happened."
As Anam so beautifully puts it, Bangladesh is a "fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct." But readers hoping to understand why this is so, or seeking the background to recent events, will have to look elsewhere. There is little here to explain how a war-crimes trial can become clouded by political agendas, for instance, or why Bangladesh's champions of the poor are today attacking one of their own, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. Bangladesh often seems mired in the minutiae of current affairs; for better or worse, The Good Muslim sets that aside and delivers something rather more visceral.