Bangladesh: the point of book prizes

With the announcement of the Orange prize longlist this week, the usual round of questions and criticisms began. Shouldn’t the list be more international? Why is there so much historical fiction on it? How come Penelope Lively missed out? And who on earth thought Emma Donoghue deserved to feature for a novel first published in 2008?

It can all make you rather tired. In fact, until recently I didn’t pay much attention to book award lists, regarding them as little more than a marketing ploy to shift books by a lucky cohort of writers that seemed to change very little from year to year.

Then I took the plunge into my project to read one book from every country in the world in 2012 and all that changed. As I struck out from the familiar shallows of British, American and postcolonial literature, I found that book prize lists gleamed like guiding beacons on a vast and sometimes turbulent ocean. Often they were my only way of telling whether something was likely to be any good.

So when Fay, who is shadow judging the Man Asian Literary Prize on her blog, stopped by to share her thoughts on some of the contenders, I was grateful to be able to add Tahmima Anam’s longlisted The Good Muslim to my Bangladeshi options.

Jumping back and forth between the early seventies, early eighties and, once, the nineties, the novel explores the fallout of the Bangladesh Liberation War, which saw the country split from Pakistan in 1972. Told mostly through the eyes of Maya Haque, a woman doctor who returns to the home of her mother, deeply religious brother and his neglected son after an absence of seven years, it reveals the different ways that people cope with trauma and the harm that silence or incomplete communication between those with close ties can do.

Anam writes eloquently about the predicament of the intelligent, professional woman in a society where meekness, marriage and motherhood are the order of the day. As in several of the other books I’ve read so far this year, modern medicine provides the frontier for the meeting of traditional and western values as reticent characters find themselves forced to turn to Maya in cases of extreme need. 

The writing works best where it traces the friction generated as these two worlds collide. Anam has a particular talent for showing how memories and emotions intrude into seemingly unconnected practicalities, providing a motive for actions that would otherwise seem inexplicable.

Some of the peripheral characters are a little awkwardly drawn and there occasionally seems to be a step or two missing in the emotional transitions. The scene where Maya takes her nephew to buy shoes and storms out of the shop in a huff, for example, left me feeling slightly nonplussed.

Nevertheless, this is an assured and compelling tale that deserves a wide audience — and one which I would never have found without the Man Asian Literary Prize (shadow) jury’s help. It is proof of the need for prize organisers to take care that their lists truly reflect the best eligible work, wherever it comes from.

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam (Canongate Books, 2011)

4 responses

  1. How thoughtful and what a friendly gesture to remember where you heard about the book. A couple of years from now, when you finish your world tour, you might want to read her first novel, A Golden Age, set earlier during the war. It is good too. – Fay

  2. Did you also read the other Bangladeshi books you listed here?

    Taslima Nasrin Shame / Humayun Ahmed To the Woods Dark and Deep / Ekhlasuddin Ahmed When the Evening Darkens / Shawkat Osman The Laughter of a Slave / Anwar Pasha Rifles Bread Women

    Curious to know which translation of Osman, Pasha, and Ahmed you found, and where?

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