Dear Husband, I lost our children today. The newly widowed Rehana addresses these startling words to her husband's grave in A Golden Age, the accomplished first novel by Tahmima Anam. Declared unfit by a judge, Rehana has had her children taken away, given to her wealthier brother-in-law and his wife in Karachi, leaving Rehana doubly bereaved in Dhaka, East Pakistan. This division subtly echoes the partitioning of India itself and the further dividing of Pakistan into East and West. By the second chapter, 20 years have passed. It's now 1971 and the children are long reunited with their mother, but the shame of having lost her children and the scheming it took to get them back has stayed with Rehana over the decades.
As her children become politically active, Rehana finds herself drawn into Bangladesh's war for independence. Her son, Sohail, convinces Rehana to bury guns beneath the rose bushes and use the second house on their property as a hiding place for nationalist soldiers. Later in the novel, she follows her daughter Maya to work in a refugee camp outside of Calcutta. What motivates Rehana, however, is not political ideals but a desire to keep her family intact at all costs.
A Golden Age ably balances the prosaic and the painful aspects of life during wartime. Scenes that describe venturing out to buy a chicken for a wounded soldier's dinner or gathering with friends to sew old saris into blankets for refugees powerfully contrast with a frightening journey to retrieve a neighbor from a military prison or the discovery of a former tenant in a refugee camp who is so traumatized that she cannot speak. Anam, who was born in Bangladesh but educated in Europe and the U.S., has an assured prose style and an ease with the material gathered from research, interviews and the memories of a grandmother who sheltered young soldiers in her home during the war. At the close of the novel, Sohail asks Rehana how the conflict could be both the greatest and worst thing we have ever done, a striking realization of war's sharp contradictions from such a young and gifted writer.