Scenes from Early Life

by Philip Hensher

Fourth Estate $49.99

Novels that are semi-autobio-graphical have been a staple of literature at least since Dickens' David Copperfield but here Philip Hensher adopts the more unusual practice of producing a work that relies entirely on someone else's memories.


Hensher's husband, Zaved Mahmood, spent his early life in Dacca against the background of the new nation of Bangladesh emerging among bloodshed and turmoil. His stories of that life have provided the raw material for this engaging book, although Hensher is keen to point out it is a novel.

It is certainly not any sort of history of the first days of Bangladesh for although the events of the time are ever present they are seen as if through a small tinted window. The preoccupation of the young protagonist is his family and friends and their domestic feuds and foibles loom larger than world events.

As Alfred Hickling pointed out in a Guardian review, Hensher's own semi-autobiographical novel, The Northern Clemency, similarly managed to include only fleeting references to some of the major events in the Sheffield of the time and displayed how the middle classes could continue life almost undisturbed by the politics of the day.

This was not quite the case in Dacca. The families here were involved in Bengali cultural life which was inextricably entangled with politics.

Friends and relatives were caught up, some fatally, in the struggle for independence from East Pakistan and its violent aftermath. Few had been left untouched by the great population shifts that followed the end of British rule. The ill-fated Sheikh Mujib was a neighbour and there is a chilling account of how he and his family were massacred.

But it is the complex relationships of the extended family and their domestic lives that fuel the interest. This is a story of a happy childhood. The aunts are characters as large as those of P.G. Wodehouse although they are not pictured as "mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps". There's even an Aunt Dahlia.

The hostility between the narrator's father and his oldest uncle has a familiar ring of truth and the descriptions of the big family gatherings with their blend of affection and rivalry have great charm. There is a nostalgic glow to it all, alongside a recognition that while the elite with their professional careers took their pleasures in poetry and art, thousands of their fellow citizens were starving outside the gates of the big houses in the disastrous famines of 1971-73.

There is, for many Western readers, a continuing fascination with the sub-continent and literature and films have produced a blend of second hand familiarity and the exotic which make a best-selling recipe, well cooked by Hensher.

He is a clever writer and here he mainly employs a simple style pitched to reflect the youth of his principal character, at times veering too close to the faux-naif, but for the most part effective.

Hensher's output is nothing if not varied, from the sprawling historical narrative of The Mulberry Empire to the very English social satire of King Of The Badgers. This latest work is a lively addition to his oeuvre and one wonders where he will go next.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.