Fourth Estate, £18.99, 312pp. £16.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Scenes From Early Life: A Novel, By Philip Hensher
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Friday 13 April 2012
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.
Grace Dent on TVtv
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Man who held up 'hire me' sign at Waterloo station returns a year later with 'I'm hiring' sign
- 2 Mother of newborn Baby No 59 trapped in sewer pipe told Chinese police she 'heard crying' when she raised alarm
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Tennis fan suing Australian Open organisers for 'failing to shade spectators' during Murray match
- 5 This crazy skiing video will leave you feeling queasy
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Alfred Hitchcock's unseen Holocaust documentary to be screened
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Photographer Matt Lankes' portraits of the cast of Boyhood influenced the film's storyline
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
British Muslim leaders outraged after Eric Pickles says followers of Islam should 'prove their identity'
UK terror fears: My jihadist son returned from Syria mentally scarred – now he is being ignored
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
Billy Crystal: 'Stop shoving gay sex scenes in my face'
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks