Book reviews

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
(John Murray)

Sumayya Ismail

Set in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), against the backdrop of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence, A Golden Age maps a family’s journey to help save their country and a mother’s determination to redeem herself.

Tahmima Anam’s flowing prose reveals the ordinary lives of those affected by war, exploring the ways and reasons for people choosing to fight and the sacrifices they must make.

The novel centres on Rehana Haque, who, after the death of her husband, loses custody of her children to her husband’s brother. The children, Sohail and Maya, are sent to live in West Pakistan.

Rehana fights to get them back and, although they return a year later, she spends the length of the novel making amends; fighting for her country to atone for the time she was unable to fight for her children.

A Golden Age is a story of people—the connections between family, friends and lovers and how these stand or crumble in times of crisis. It is a story about dealing with the invasiveness of war, when there is ammunition buried under the rose bushes, and about individual limitations and people who rise above them.

In a subtle way, with the war as an ever-present milieu, Anam crafts a story of duty and hope amid loss and displacement. Through death or distance or the threat against a country, she explores the lengths her characters go to to retain the essence of what was.

The Puppeteers
by Renesh Lakhan
(David Philip)

Kwanele Sosibo

In this novel Renesh Lakhan uses the rise of Afrikaner nationalism in a small rural town as a platform to delve into the identity crises that plague his characters and, ultimately, shape their destiny.

His protagonist, Sunny, comes of age with the spectre of mounting Afrikaner political mobilisation in the 1940s. He is the product of a mixed marriage between a Boer carpenter and a Shangaan mother.

By way of a special concession, Sunny attends a white school in his hometown of Doringsveld. Through his irreverent and flirtatious drama teacher’s teaching methods, he learns to appreciate English mannerisms to the point of internalising them, while at the same time becoming fascinated with a mysterious ‘Afrikaans” classmate called Jennie.

Jennie is acutely aware of her sexuality and its impact, using it to manipulate the power relations in the classroom and, specifically, to make Sunny the envy of his classmates. Sunny, already an outcast at the school because of his race, presses on precariously, becoming increasingly intrigued by Jennie.

Suddenly the world he has grown accustomed to is wrenched away when, under the intensifying political climate, his concession is revoked and he is forced to attend a coloured school out of town. It is in a nearby township that he discovers Jennie’s true identity and the two set off into Johannesburg in search of their dreams.

Although Lakhan paints a searing, labyrinthine portrait of loss of identity and the desperation that leads to, especially for those who straddled different racial identities, what should be the climax of his story is not convincing.

Jennie and Sunny, now re-invented as lady of leisure and her baron, attain power and influence, running a successful prostitution ring based, as they usually are, on fantasy. Lakhan glosses over the intricacies of this pivotal development and its effect on his leading characters, with Sunny emerging in the new South Africa as a power player of another kind, albeit with emotional scars.

Lakhan’s treatment of the narrative suggests that perhaps the story he wanted to tell was over well before the book’s last page. The Puppeteers, a psychological drama of sorts, has the context, the characters and the conflict, but loses its legs prematurely.

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