Philip Hensher attempts a complex act of narrative ventriloquism in his eighth novel. Scenes from Early Life is written as a fictionalised memoir, told from the viewpoint of Hensher's husband, Zaved Mahmood. This re-imagining of his partner's childhood in what was then East Pakistan [now Bangladesh] reads like a fictive account that wants to stay faithful to historical reality. It might be this complicated braiding of the documentary and the dramatic, of fiction and reality, that gives early chapters their static, distant tone.
Mahmood, or Saadi as he his nicknamed, begins with memories of his grandfather's sprawling home in Dacca (modern Dhaka). Born into an upper-middle class Bengali family in 1970, at a time when post-Partition Bengal is buckling under Pakistani sovereignty, Saadi's voice gives us vignettes of early life – his favourite aunt, his pet chicken Piklu's antics, his childhood games. These read like nostalgia-drenched snapshots accompanying – and resembling – the grainy black and white photographs occasionally printed alongside the text.
So it is a surprise when we begin to see a method in Hensher's initial flatness. The casual intimacy with which the extended family is depicted builds in depth and reveals the finer nuances of their relationships amid the love marriages, elopements and sibling feuds. The gentle humour develops sharper edges. The initial tension that buzzes around Saadi later flares up into the bloody horror of war.
Hensher's understated tone maintains itself even in scenes of obscene military cruelty. Ironically, it is the understatement that raises the dramatic tension until we see that this is precisely where the book's emotional power lies.
Hensher draws a finely detailed portrait of a family at a crucial period in Bengali history but does not attempt to give us the definitive story of the Bangladeshi liberation war. The story stays deliberately local, and its strength lies in its specificity. As we are introduced to a greater range of characters – the two musicians, Altaf and Amit, are among the most moving – the narrative comes alive in unexpected and original ways.
It is through their changing relationship to the state that the full extent of Pakistani repression is revealed. Amit is a Hindu schoolteacher who notices a cultural lock-down in the curriculum: pupils are not taught Bengali but the more alien Urdu script and the poetic works of Tagore are banned. Bengali literature has virtually become samizdat, and Saadi's grandfather seals up his library in case the military destroys his precious books.
The cultural fascism imposed by West Pakistan is described powerfully through Amit's story-line. His furtive train journey back to India for fear of religious persecution, months before the war of independence, has a poignant parallel. Altaf made the same trip, in reverse, as a Muslim leaving India and fearing for his life during Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence, post-Partition. These two journeys show how swiftly the freed can assume the role of oppressors: "This was how history worked," Amit thinks, "a good thing balanced by a bad thing."
There have been numerous reflections on the struggle for Pakistani identity, but the story of Bangladesh is far less heard. Tahmina Anam is among the writers exploring this aspect of sub-continental history, and Hensher's novel adds richly to the genre.
His previous novel, King of the Badgers, could not have been more different, described by one critic as the kind of fiction that George Eliot might have written if she was interested in gay orgies. That Hensher departs so radically from his usual fare is testimony to his courage. If you judge a book by its first few chapters, Hensher might lose you, but do persevere with this work of originality and power.