War novels like Gone with the Wind, Sophie’s Choice, The Book Thief to name a few, capture the stresses and choices that ordinary people are forced to make as the brutality and deprivation of war, occupation, captivity, that change the ordinary circumstances of life into a living nightmare. This book is no different.
The book starts with a prologue where the widow Rehana sits at her husband’s grave and tells him that she has lost the children. Because of her poverty, her husband’s brother and childless sister-in-law have taken custody of Sohail and Maya, Rehana’s 7 and 5 year olds. Even though they are gone for only a year, Rehana feels in her heart the yearning gap of that year and devotes herself totally to her children.
Every year, they have a party where they celebrate the children’s return. March 1971 was no different. The party had become a routine, the same guests, Rehana’s neighbors, a tenant family from India, the gin-rummy ladies and her daughter’s friend. They are celebrating and optimistic of the future. But within a few short weeks, tanks rolled into Dhaka, refugees start streaming out, massacres occur in the city, and her children are drawn into the resistance movement. Life is anything but ordinary when Rehana is drawn into the resistance by her son and daughter. Faced with her guilt at how she lost them for a short while when they were young, and the secret of how she was able to bring them back, Rehana goes along with their efforts, hiding guns and supplies in her home and harboring and caring for a wounded major that at first she regards as a nuisance.
She would like nothing better than to retreat into her routine, her shell, sitting at her late husband’s grave and speaking to him, and lying to him and herself about the normalcy of her life, ignoring her daughter’s cold shoulder and indifference, and her own guilt at the shameful acts she took to bring her children back. But as the weeks went by, taking care of the major who only greeted her with silent eyes, she begins to open up to him, telling him of her secrets, as if to atone for them and he silently bears her secrets for her. The war tears Rehana’s circle apart, lives tragically destroyed, destinies changed. Rehana meets her former tenant in a refugee camp, a walking shell, with nothing left inside her except sorrow, for the choice she made, she’ll pay with tears the rest of her life.
Given these intensely personal depictions, readers can’t help but be invested in the struggles and sacrifices made by the brave individuals who populate the pages of A GOLDEN AGE. Some revolutionary acts are brazen and bold — blowing up part of a hotel, attacking the capital’s power grid — while others, like Rehana’s own, are quieter but no less sacrificial. “Rehana wondered what her sisters would make of her at this very moment. Guerrillas at Shona. Sewing kathas on the rooftop. Her daughter at rifle practice…. She imagined the letter she would write. Dear sisters, she would say. Our countries are at war; yours and mine. We are on different sides now. I am making pickles for the war effort. You see how much I belong here and not to you.”
Rehana’s greatest hope, through all her moments of self-sacrifice and surprising personal discoveries, is that she and her family can go back to what she has called their “ordinary, unexceptional lives.” In her debut novel (the first in a projected trilogy that will explore the creation of Bangladesh), Tahmima Anam brilliantly illustrates that, in times of war, even a humble life like Rehana’s can become extraordinary and exceptional — and will not easily be forgotten.