Fourth Estate £18.99

Scenes from Early Life, By Philip Hensher

This novel – and it is a novel – describes the rich texture of extended family life in pre-independence, conflict-riven Bangladesh

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

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test