Book Review: The Good Muslim

By David Hill

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The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
Text Publishing $40

Book cover of The Good Muslim. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Good Muslim. Photo / Supplied

Another epic novel of the Indian sub-continent, written by a gorgeous and precociously talented young woman. What a ... novel idea.

Indeed, we seem to have had a number of such fictions in the last decade-plus. Most have been notable. A few have been memorable. Tahmima Anam's qualifies for at least one of those categories.

Her second book is an independent read as well as part of an intended trilogy. In Bangladesh, immediately following the war of independence from Pakistan, Sohail the soldier comes home changed forever by what he's seen. Twelve years later, his sister Maya also returns from fighting - in her case for the new nation's rural health. She, too, is changed, not least by the knife laid across her throat one night.

When the siblings meet, Maya finds that bereavement and "the disappointing ordinariness of peace" have hardened her much-loved brother into a religious radical.

The boy who once held his little sister's hand as they walked to school has burned his books and renounced his friends.

He sports a bruise on his forehead "from his daily submission to the prayer mat".

His sister has to redefine her own role as daughter, woman and believer. As a doctor, she has campaigned for education and enlightenment. Now she continues that campaign as a columnist, attacking repression, religious excess, an establishment where the smiling, moustached face of The Dictator watches from every wall.

She veers towards belief, away from belief, towards love - even though she "missed the lesson at school on how to talk to boys".

But when Sohail starts sending his son to an Islamic school where he's desperately unhappy, events start aiming themselves towards catastrophe, with a courtroom conclusion of revelation and reconciliation.

Moving between Dhaka's pullulating streets and dusty remote villages where a woman is lashed for giving birth to a Down Syndrome child, the narrative of The Good Muslim is driven by the conflict between emancipation and fundamentalism.

But it's much more textured than that. Anam explores every nuance of a brother and sister who once were absolutely inseparable, but now seem forever estranged.

She writes both lyrically and loudly. Her style is rich with cadence and incantation. At the same time, it's always accessible, always purposeful, just occasionally clotted. A startling and sensuous story. The culture may be exotic, but the emotional and ethical choices are universal.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

- NZ Herald

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