Scenes from Early Life

A Novel

Philip Hensher

Faber & Faber

From the Man Booker–short-listed author of The Northern Clemency, a family and a nation—Bangladesh—are forged through storytelling, conversation, jokes, feuds, blood, songs, bravery, and sacrifice

In late 1970 a boy named Saadi is born into a large, defiantly Bengali family in eastern Pakistan. Months later the country splits in two, in what will become one of the most ferocious twentieth-century civil wars. Saadi tells the story of his childhood and of the ingenious ways his family survived the violence and conflicts: from his aunts stuffing him endlessly with sweets to stop marauding soldiers from hearing him cry, to street games based on American television shows; from the basement compartment his grandfather built to hide his treasured books, pictures, and music until after the war, to the daily gossip about each and every one of the relatives, servants, and neighbors. Scenes from Early Life is a beautifully detailed novel of profound empathy—an attempt to capture the collective memory of a family and a country.

At once heartbreaking and surprisingly funny, Scenes from Early Life is based on the life of Philip Hensher’s husband, and as such it is at once a memoir, a novel, and a history. As this remarkable writer brings the past to life, we come to feel, vividly and viscerally, that Saadi’s family—and its struggles and triumphs—are our own.  Scenes form Early Life is the winner of the 2013 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.


Read an Excerpt

1: At Nana’s House

Even the shit of a dog smells good to you, if it’s English.
(Ingrazi kuttar gu-o tomar khache bhalo.)
My grandmother used to say this to my grandfather. He was very pro-Empire. That was my mother’s father, who used to call me Churchill when I cried. At first I did not know who Churchill was, but my grandfather would explain to me, and after a while I knew who he meant when he said Churchill. He meant me, and often he would ask to have me sit next to him at the lunch table. ‘I want Churchill here,’ he said, and I would


Praise for Scenes from Early Life

Praise for Scenes from Early Life

"Scenes from Early Life is a triumph, an astonishing feat of empathy and narrative virtuosity. It deserves to be garlanded with many prizes, and nowhere more so than in the Indian subcontinent." —Amitav Ghosh, author of River of Smoke and Sea of Poppies

"[Hensher] does for Bangladesh what Salman Rushdie did for India with Midnight’s Children." —Phil Baker, The Sunday Times (London)

"Hensher has created a greater thing than just a record of childhood, or war. It probably isn’t Zaved’s story anymore, but it’s great just the same." —Bella Bathurst, The Observer

"One of the most delightful and engaging descriptions of family life to have been published for many years . . . Saturated with gentleness, humour and affection." —Amanda Craig, The Independent on Sunday

"Hensher proves himself a literary god of small things, from chillies drying on [Saadi’s] grandfather’s balcony to the oppressive clutter of Saadi’s parents’ first marital home . . . As this book movingly shows, appropriation is sometimes an act of love." —Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

"A richly depicted saga of childhood joys and sorrows . . . This is [Hensher’s] most purely pleasurable novel to date." —Michael Arditti, The Daily Mail

"A book suffused with tenderness, yet altogether free from sentimentality. One feels the writing has been a labour of love. Perhaps this is why the experience of reading it is so delightful." —Allan Massie, The Scotsman

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Philip Hensher

  • Philip Hensher is a columnist for The Independent, an arts critic for The Spectator, and one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. He has written one collection of short stories, a book on handwriting called The Missing Ink, and eight novels, including The Mulberry Empire, King of the Badgers, and The Northern Clemency, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He lives in South London and Geneva.
  • Philip Hensher Eamonn McCabe


Available Formats and Book Details

Scenes from Early Life

A Novel

Philip Hensher

RSL Ondaatje Prize Shortlist, RSL Ondaatje Prize Winner