Bangladeshis make up one of the largest ethnic communities living in London, yet until the publication of Monica Ali's Brick Lane, their existence was barely acknowledged by contemporary British literature. The publication of Philip Hensher's Scenes From Early Life, set in the part of Pakistan that became Bangladesh in 1971, is welcome partly for giving us a portrait of a complex community, but more because it is one of the most delightful and engaging descriptions of family life to have been published for many years.
The story is narrated by Saadi, who was a baby when the 1971 war of independence took place, and who cannot therefore know at first-hand much of what he eventually describes. Saturated with gentleness, humour and affection, it's a world away from Hensher's previous novel King of the Badgers, and the eye-popping sexual shenanigans of the small-town Devon community portrayed in it.
A bright, loved, spoilt child, Saadi tells of his extended family, his childhood games inspired by American TV, and of the only other violent event in his young life: the unwitting slaughter of his pet chicken for the pot. We learn of his father, Mahmood, and mother, Shiri, who fell in love when they were imprisoned together for taking part in a demonstration against Pakistan's oppressive Muslim regime, and we gather that they and Saadi's various aunties and uncles all live together in a big high-walled house in Dhaka, with a balcony which is quarrelled over, and a quantity of servants who are treated with exemplary fairness by their employers.
The texture of this kind of extended family life will be familiar to fans of Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry, and at first it seems as if Scenes From Early Life will be no more than another charming tale of how mildly eccentric post-colonial characters fall in love, annoy one other, suffer and survive with an aplomb that is as different from that of British people as mangoes are from apples. However, violence and threat will soon encroach upon the characters' intricate way of life.
Saadi's father and grandfather are respected Bengali lawyers, and neighbours of the future first president of Bangladesh, a man frequently harassed and thrown into prison for upholding his people's right to their own language, poetry and music. Their cultured middle-class manners and shrewdness are what helps them, ultimately, to survive the crisis of war.
Hensher does not give us much of the internal life of his characters, but the reader comes to care about their situations. The most affecting involves two humble musicians – one Hindu and one Muslim – who become friends and who teach Saadi's sister. When one leaves, fearing that he can no longer continue to work in the school where he has taught music and the poetry of Tagore, his friend falls into an alcoholic decline. The religious divide between the Hindus and Muslims, which eventually leads to violent oppression, is sensed by the young Saadi years after the war, when he's forbidden to play with the son of neighbours who are known to have betrayed their countrymen to the Pakistani regime; depicting it gives a sharp counterpoint to a novel which might have become too charming.
When civil war laps at their gates, the infant Saadi's cries risk exposing the family to the predations of soldiers who have already butchered their neighbours. For a moment, there is the possibility that our narrator will be murdered. However, his grandfather's typically humane solution is for Saadi to be nursed and carried night and day by all his aunties from March to December – which leads to the child being so plump that he becomes known as "the Churchill of Bangladesh".
Hensher tells the story in Saadi's clear, observant voice, which for the most part convinces. Only at the end do we discover that the story is largely drawn from the memories of Hensher's husband, Zaved Mahmood. Some may question whether this makes Scenes From Early Life a kind of ghosted autobiography rather than a work of literary fiction from one of the best novelists of his generation, but the prose makes it clear that it is indeed a novel. The mischievous intelligence which grasps the joke about a couple of villagers deciding to call their daughter "Urine" rather than "Irene" is not that of a memoirist. Hensher's rendition of Dhaka, where neighbours would not acknowledge each other, for betraying their own kind is "as if there were two cities laid on top of each other, each quite invisible to the other, each engaging only with its own sort" brings the beady-eyed satirist of Kitchen Venom together with the luminous riches of The Northern Clemency.
One could do with more insights of this kind, but this delightful book shows for the first time what Hensher has largely concealed in the past: his heart.
Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds is published by Abacus