Dec 4, 2012

Scenes From Early Life by Philip Hensher (Green Carnation Prize Project)

Scenes From Early Life by Philip Hensher

In the afterword to Scenes From Early Life, Philip Hensher describes it as “a novel of the formation of Bangladesh”. Told through the eyes of Saadi, a boy born shortly before the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, it offers a very personal look at history, one that is reminiscent of novels such as Half of a Yellow Sun. We’re shown the Pakistani government’s repression of the Bengali language and of Bengali culture that preceded the war, the tumults and famines of the early 1970’s, the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family and other historical events, all through the personal perspective of one boy and his family. This is one of my favourite ways to approach historical fiction, since it humanises large-scale events and shows us what it was like to actually live through them.

It’s also in the afterword that we learn that our narrator, Saadi, is actually Zaved Mahmood, the author’s husband: what Hensher does in Scenes From Early Life is retell a slightly fictionalised version of Mahmood’s memories of his and his family’s life in Bangladesh in the 1970’s. Before I can say anything more about this novel, I need to explain how the narrative voice works: Saadi is a child at the time these events take place, but his is not the voice of a precocious child narrator whose awareness of the wider political context of what he’s witnessing stretches credibility. Instead, Scenes From Early Life reads like a collection of memories – Saadi the adult looks back on his childhood, relies on information from his family to fill the gaps of what he can’t remember, and tempers his youthful impressions with the kind of knowledge that can only come with perspective and age.

His voice is the perfect mix of innocence and wisdom; it’s also intermingled with a fondness for his large family that I found charming. Scenes from Early Life is Saadi’s story and Bangladesh’s story, but it’s as much the story of his grandfather and his large library, hidden behind a plastered-over cellar door for the duration of the war; of his aunt Nadira, a talented musician who moved to Sheffield after her wedding and could not take her harmonium; of his father and uncle Boro’s family feud; of his sister’s fondness for climbing mango trees and sitting to read for hours; of Altaf and Amit, two musicians and close friends that the war separates. I generally like family sagas, and Scenes from Early Life can be described as a small-scale one. However, they don’t always feel spontaneous, especially when the members of the family seem to fulfil a role rather than be portrayed as individuals. I’m happy to report that the reverse is true here: Saadi’s storytelling makes his parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts come to life. They all have their individual quirks, and they’re all loved and fondly remembered as people and not just as relations.

The other thing worth highlighting about the novel’s voice is the fact that this is a story narrated by an insider to Bangladeshi history and culture that was in fact written by an outsider. Usually these matters of authorship remain external to the text, but Hensher brings them in by having a few nods to the creative process behind this novel, such as the following, spread through the narrative:
(‘What is the turmeric day?’ the man to whom I am telling this story asks.
‘Well, you know turmeric?’
‘Yes, I know turmeric. It’s a yellow spice, very difficult to get out of clothes.’
‘Well, the turmeric day is a day devoted to turmeric. They make a paste out of it; they put it on the bride.’
‘Who puts it on the bride?’
‘Well, her friends do. The henna decorates her hands and feet, complicated abstract designs, while she sits on a small platform.’
‘Why is it called a turmeric day, and not a henna day?’ he asks, but I am going to ignore that question.
‘She is coloured yellow all over. With turmeric. That is what I am talking about. It makes her skin lovely and soft. Do you want to know any more?’ I say to the man who is asking these questions.
‘No,’ he says, ‘that is quite clear, thank you.’)
In this brief exchange, the author, the man to whom the narrator is telling his story, admits to his limited knowledge and implicitly to the fact that he’s perhaps not ideally qualified to tell this story. But simultaneously he redresses these limitations the only way we can – by asking question and by listening to the answers. I found this metafictional moment a powerful acknowledgement of the possible complications behind telling a story such as this one.

At the same time, it’s important to note that there are actually only a few moments like this in the novel – we’re not constantly pulled out of the story by questions, and so the insider’s perspective Saadi provides is not undermined by an outsider’s look. I should make it absolutely clear that I have no qualifications to comment on the quality of Hensher’s historical and cultural research or on whether Saadi’s voice sounds authentic – my knowledge of Bangladesh’s history is extremely slim, and as such I had to take the facts as they’re presented in Scenes From Early Life at face value. All I can say is that Saadi’s voice creates a feeling of intimacy, and that a reader such as myself doesn’t feel that Bengali culture is being exoticised or overexplained for the sake of Western eyes.

The complications of the war as experienced by a child take centre stage on Scenes From Early Life. For example, Saadi tells us that when he was growing up there were some children in his neighbourhood he was not supposed to play with – children whose existence he’d ideally not even acknowledge. These were the children of families who took the side of Pakistan in the war. Whenever I read a passage such as the following, about how people from these different factions ignored each other despite living side by side, I couldn’t help but think of The City & The City:
These families mixed with each other, but not with us. To see the men with their friends was always unexpected; then they were at ease, greeting, laughing, chatting quite easily, their wives and sisters to one side. For those moments, despite their immaculate clothes, they resembled our families, but of course they were not like them at all. And then they would say goodbye, and without warning, the men would resume that remote gaze of theirs. They would not acknowledge their nearest neighbours, and their nearest neighbours would ignore them, too. It was as if there were two cities laid on top of one another, each quite invisible to the other, each engaging only with its own sort.
Green Carnation Prize
I read Scenes From Early Life for the Green Carnation Reading Project: Jodie from Book Gazing invited a group of bloggers to read and review the short list for the Green Carnation Prize, a UK literary award for lgbtq literature started by Simon from Savidge Reads. One of the things I like about awards like this one is that they have the potential to showcase just how varied a category like lgbtq literature really is. Sometimes people justify not reading more diversely by saying these are “issue books” of limited interest to them, but being gay (or trans, or a person of colour, or a woman, or...) is not something that happens apart from every other aspect of being human; it’s something that happens alongside it. To be clear, identity is important and I’m all for novels where non-heterosexual relationships take centre stage: we still need more – many more – of them. At the same time, the fact that Saadi’s homosexuality is only one among the factors that shape him as a person is a good reminder that this is what happens in the lives of real, complex, multifaceted human beings.

You can find the schedule for the rest of the Green Carnation Reading Project below:
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Without question--straight to wish list.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it and am also sneakily glad that you ended up focusing on the issue I found so interesting when the first press for this book was coming out (Hensher writing his partner's story). Thanks for joining in to get the word out about the GCP. And look forward to ma very first vlog (assuming I can work the camera) on Mon.

  3. I agree, with a history so complicated, it helps to see things from a street level. I know next to nothing about this part of the world and its history, and I think reading something like this would bring it to life for me. i'm so glad to see that the green carnation awards are still going strong!

  4. I love it when a fictional character is not heterosexual but that "issue" isn't the center of the story. We'll know the world is changing for the better when this happens more and more often in books, film, and television. This book sounds right up my alley. I'm off to add it to my wish list.

  5. I know so little about the history of Bangladesh so this sounds like a book I need to read.

  6. Wow, this sounds really good. I last tried a Philip Hensher book when I had jury duty in 2008, and I shall have jury duty again in 2013, so ha! Beautiful symmetry! I'm going to make this happen.

  7. Oh, wow- seems like this book highlights a lot of important topics. What a great literary prize, too!


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