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The Mulberry Empire

By Philip Hensher

The new doorstop novel (537 pages!) by Philip Hensher, who is a columnist for the London Independent and chief book reviewer for The Spectator, covers a decade, concerns the First Afghan War, and ranges from London to Calcutta, St Petersburg to Kabul. In the spring of 1839, the forces of the British Empire entered Afghanistan in splendour, deposing Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, Pearl of the Age, and installing their puppet Shah Shujah-ul-mulk. Three years later, in 1842, all that was left of that great army was a single British horseman, spared only so that he could tell the tale of the peremptory Afghan revenge.

The chief characters of this tome are Alexander Burnes, a Scottish adventurer at loose in Asia; Bella Garraway, the London high society debutant with whom he has a brief affair; and the Amir himself. Given the current international situation, one would have thought that it would prove instructive to discover more about the history of this region, before it became a hapless, unsuspecting venue for a ‘war on terrorism’. But, as Hensher tells us in the ‘Errors and Obligations’ at the end of the book, ‘…this is a pack of lies, though outlines of my imaginary war occasionally coincide with those of a real one…’

So, if it makes no claims to historical accuracy, does it work as fiction? Alas, no. Hensher is not a natural writer, and provides yet another example of a prevailing trend, that of perfectly good journalists who think they can cut it as novelists. The rambling story, the thin characterisation and the turgid prose do nothing to justify the book’s length, and it has none of the intellectual rigour or metaphysical playfulness that make Antonia Byatt, who Hensher tells us was the book’s ‘onlie begetter’, and ‘told me bluntly from the beginning that I must write a long novel’, so entertaining and worth reading.

For, if there is a ‘fairly awful Irish historical novel’ (rain, miserable upbringing, alcohol abuse, rain, authoritarian priests, did I mention the rain?), there is also a ‘fairly awful English historical’ equivalent (pomp and circumstance, dashing hero, stiff upper lip, pomp and circumstance, wise and virtuous heroine, let’s not forget the pomp and circumstance). And, while there are hints of a healthy English revisionist attitude to the legacy of empire going on here, it still remains for the former imperial power to produce a writer who will address the empire which has been busy writing back, via inventive storytellers like Salman Rushdie, and respond to the colonised’s missives with a matching vigour and élan.

First published in the Irish Independent



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