A childhood only half-remembered: ‘Scenes from Early’ Life by Philip Hensher

  • Article by: ELLEN AKINS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 8:40 PM

The intimate drama of one Bengali family's charmed life within the larger drama of the formation of Bangladesh.

SCENES FROM EARLY LIFE by: Philip Hensher.

Whether this is a memoir written in the form of a novel or a novel written in the form of a memoir would be hard to say, but either way its narrative peculiarities and charms are the same. The book, about a well-to-do Bengali family during the formation of Bangladesh, is narrated in the voice of Zaved Mahmood, the author's husband, as Philip Hensher informs us in an Author's Note. Mahmood was born in 1970, "shortly before the outbreak of the war of independence," Hensher tells us -- and this makes for some of the odd moments in "Scenes From Early Life," as a narrator still in his infancy (or at times, not yet born) during much of what he describes nonetheless offers a creditable account of the goings-on. For instance: "The silent baby in its swaddling began to stir and warble, and to screw its ugly face into a ball. My mother made no response, and soon I began to cry properly."

This captures in miniature the way the book works. The narrator, called Saadi, is not so much telling his family's story as assembling it, putting together scenes he witnessed and stories he's heard to construct a family history that, though filtered through one voice, contains all the others in the form of anecdotes, observations and memories that, together, created -- and now re-create -- this family's world. This seems to me a very effective rendering of how a family builds its own culture, which in turn is shaped and shaken by the larger culture in which it finds itself.

So the intimate dramas of Saadi's parents and aunts and uncles, whose marrying and childbearing and fallings-out provide what passes for plot in the book, are structured according to the rules of a household presided over by the boy's grandfather (or Nana), a prominent lawyer and a presence at once loftily remote from and minutely aware of family matters. And these dramas are in turn directed by the history and turbulent times in which, and against which, they occur.

But while violent events and political mayhem rumble around the story's outskirts, occasionally intruding, we mostly remain within the confines of family -- immersed in the courtship of Saadi's parents, the feud between them and his lay-about uncle, the elopement of one aunt and the elaborate wedding of another -- as felt by a small boy, as learned of later, as remembered from afar. And as recounted here: "Do you want to know any more?" the narrator asks "the man to whom I am telling this story." The one who is told the story becomes the one who tells it, and so the culture of the family carries on.

Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.

  • SCENES FROM EARLY LIFE

    By: Philip Hensher.

    Publisher: Faber and Faber, 312 pages, $27.

    Review: Hensher's book is a hybrid -- fictionalized memoir of the childhood of his husband. The narrator combines scenes he witnessed and stories he was told to build a family history.

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