cover image Scenes from Early Life

Scenes from Early Life

Philip Hensher. FSG/Faber and Faber, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-86547-761-2

In Hensher’s (King of the Badgers) lush novel, somewhat based on his husband Zaved Mahmood’s Bengali childhood, the war for control of what became Bangladesh unfolds before a child’s eyes. Mahmood’s fictional alter ego, Saadi, is born in 1970 to an upper-middle-class family in Dacca and grows up in luxury even as the country deteriorates around him. Hensher’s transitions between Saadi’s present and the past of his large extended family are so seamless as to be nearly invisible. Saadi’s life revolves around his maternal grandparents, figures powerful enough that Saadi, his brother and sisters, and their parents are never far from the lavish compound that is also home to a constant rotation of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Other characters flit in and out of view, most prominently musicians Altaf and Amit, who personify the deep current of artistic expression in Dacca and the bond between men that can extend beyond blood. Their forced separation, when Amit flees to Calcutta, underscores the dire situation in East Pakistan. In relaying the history of the struggle for Bangladeshi independence, Hensher avoids punctiliousness, as the story is filtered through young Saadi, whose innocence in the face of turmoil creates the emotional core of the story. Agent: Georgia Garrett, Rogers, Coleridge & White, U.K. (Jan.)