The novelist Philip Hensher is pointing out the key line in his new novel, Scenes From Early Life. And it's not the most obvious - or, it has to be said, promising - sentence for a book with such dramatic pretensions. "Life is full of moments of normality," says his narrator. "Where no story springs and nothing goes wrong."
Scenes From Early Life, however, is far from being a normal book. Hensher grew up the son of a Sheffield bank manager and yet he's written the history of a Bengali family in the midst of the 1971 liberation war, in which Bangladesh emerged from East Pakistan. And this upper-middle class family of tax lawyers from Dhaka do seem, at least at the outset, relatively run of the mill: they complain about their driver, the children chase chickens, there are meddling aunts everywhere. "I love stories with lots of aunts in them," beams Hensher. "They just seem richer somehow."
Inevitably, the war smashes the reverie, but it's Hensher's interest in the minutiae of a Bangladeshi family that is so intriguing. The reason quickly becomes apparent; he'd grown increasingly fascinated by the family life and stories of his partner Zaved Mahmood, born in Dhaka in 1970.
"Actually, Zav's family went through the war, the independence and then the famine in a pretty unremarkable way, but that's what attracted me to writing about them," he says. "The war of independence is not a particularly well-known episode in the West. So it was a combination, really, of telling these really good family stories Zav had from this incredible time, and making people aware of this tragic and heroic episode in the country's history."
Even though the narrator is ostensibly his partner, Hensher deals with such disparate strands from a novelist's perspective, which was always the intention. A straight, ghosted memoir, he says, would have felt wrong (indeed, Mahmood isn't present for a lot of the story), and Scenes From Early Life, as the title suggests, started out as a book about childhood rather than an historical document about living life in a conflict.
"We both knew this would be a novelistic rendering of some of the experiences this family had, rather than a factual account," Hensher says. "And actually, if I made any claims that this was factual, people would quite rightly be cross with me. So I started with the beloved family stories, moved on to the things that Zav thinks happened, and beyond that I made bits up, not least because I wanted to have the freedom to use dialogue to tell the story. However, the passage in the book when a village couple decide to give their baby twins western names, and settle on Irene and Urine: that's absolutely true."
That laugh-out-loud episode is typical of Scenes From Early Life - it's an affectionate, warm and genuinely amusing portrait of the madness contained within this Bengali family. Such vivid, easy-going storytelling makes the gradual drift towards the conflict all the more upsetting - and yet the transition never feels ham-fisted. Like his Booker-nominated opus The Northern Clemency, set during the traumatic years of Thatcher's reign in England, Hensher is best at chronicling what happens to normal people in dramatic times.
"There are similarities in the approaches," he agrees. "I am really interested in the family unit - you're stuck with your mum and dad but after a while, it's a gesture of volition which aunts and uncles and cousins you have relationships with. Same, of course, with your husband or wife. It's interesting territory for a novelist because the subject of what people are stuck with and what they want to have is the big topic, isn't it?"
And if The Northern Clemency was broadly Hensher investigating his upbringing, Scenes From Early Life is a chance to explore his partner's. So is Mahmood happy with the results?
"Of course. Who wouldn't love a novelist to feel their family story was worthy of writing about?" he jokes. "A few elements were changed, but on the whole, Zav's happy with the outcome. Although I do admit, the prospect of a novelist writing my life story is too appalling to contemplate."
Happily for Zaved Mahmood, his family's story has been lovingly told by a novelist at the peak of his powers.