Contemporary literature has witnessed many a vaunted wunderkind succumb to the dreaded second-novel syndrome. British-Bangladeshi Monica Ali's Brick Lane caused quite a flutter in literary London but was followed by a damp squib. With the American-sounding Bangladeshi Tahmima Anam's second outing The Good Muslim, one cannot help but feel a sense of déjà vu - her much admired debut The Golden Age seemed another harbinger for one in Bangladeshi writing in English. (For brevity, we will completely side-step the thorny issue of who may or may not be called Bangladeshi) The blurb of the latest book, with glowing recommendations from authors (friends?) - who are generously thanked in the acknowledgements - would have you believe otherwise but such back-scratching is in the nature of the business.
Anam's book is culled from the same raw material which she drew on for her first novel. The research for both her books comes partly from interviews she conducted with family members and Bangladeshis who experienced the 1971 war with Pakistan. The focal family have the same names and relationships - Rehana, her daughter Maya and son Sohail - as in her first book. The narrative, however, is not a continuation of the former but an altogether new one.
Maya's story is intimately linked to her brother's through their shared experience of Bangladesh's war of independence. The wounds of the conflict run deep and rather than bring them together they drive a wedge between them. The division is a result of Sohail's fanatical devotion to and Maya's alienation from religion. After the war, Sohail's zealous pursuit of Islam leads him to renounce the material world and convert the upper part of his mother's quarters in the city (Dhaka) into a freehouse inhabited by his female acolytes and devotees who help him preach the message of God. Maya, after seven years of work as "a crusading doctor" in Rajshahi, a village in the middle of the country, returns, similarly marked, but with lesser baggage. The untimely death of Sohail's wife returns her to her mother's house which has transformed since she left. Her deepest anxieties are for Sohail's young son who suffers from appalling neglect because of his father's religious engagements. What ensues makes for an engaging tale but one that never quite rises to the challenges Anam sets herself up for.
That is not to say that Anam's book does not raise important issues. The state of the nation is one of her abiding concerns. The greed, corruption and apathy of government officials and dictators; the ugly face of Islamic fundamentalism via what goes on in taleems and madrassas; the aftermath of war - the rape of women by enemy soldiers, the consequences for them in a culture which sets great store by the "purity" of women, this and other war crimes which go unpunished are posited. The potential of such weighty issues, however, is not satisfactorily exploited. One of the problems is the central character Maya, who is difficult to warm to: for all her worthy, po-faced posturing, what she calls her "crusading", she is given little agency. She does not have the spine to square up to her brother whose moral rectitude is not shown to have much of a basis. Anam also tends to waffle at times introducing secondary characters who serve primarily, for Maya and Sohail, to enact and re-enact their oppositional world-views. It tends to get annoyingly repetitive. The book cuts back and forth to segments just after the war and thirteen years afterwards, for the most part, which makes it readable but it hardly ever does more than shuffle along. The emotional resonance one would expect from such material comes towards the end when Maya confronts her guilt and trails after Sohail's son.
The virtues of "pared down" writing are championed by many reviewers and critics these days and, indeed, it is used to great effect by many writers but Anam does so with limited results and often leaves one wondering what purpose the simplicity of style is serving. On occasion, her language is vapid: "... she couldn't imagine being anywhere else. Her time away had dissolved, like sugar in water, leaving no imprint". The book is uneven, however, and there are instances of trenchant observation - in this case, when she describes the gender divide in the upstairs world which has Maya's brother at its helm: "On the women's side, the scarves were pulled tighter, as though the very sound of their brothers on the other side warranted an extra dose of vigilance" or on the solace provided by her visits to the taleems held upstairs during her mother's brush with cancer: "Here, in this room, was the only place she could believe, really believe, that her mother would live. Everywhere else the possibility of her absence had taken over: every meal Maya ate that wasn't cooked by her, the rooms in which she read and bathed and dressed, the garden, which she had diligently watered but could not save from its yellowish cast".
While taking on board that writing fiction is a challenging, time-consuming task which requires dedication, skill, imagination and immersion, criticism and comparisons are an unavoidable part of the terrain. The pace and style of Anam's book reminded me of Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room and Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men - half-successful novels by authors from other parts of the postcolonial world (South Africa and Libya) - both of which featured on major prize shortlists. The Good Muslim, likewise, is already up for the Man Asia Literature Prize. Prizes aside, there is little doubt about Anam's youthful promise but the gold standard for a novel about the dark side of Muslim conservatism, from amongst the subcontinental diaspora, is Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers. Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim - while different in subject-matter in important ways - brings no change to the status quo.