The Mulberry Empire

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9780007112265: The Mulberry Empire

The breakthrough novel from Britain’s most brilliant young critic

With The Mulberry Empire, Philip Hensher, in his fourth book, has now happened upon a subject that suits his many talents perfectly. It’s a seemingly straightforward historical novel that recounts an episode in the Great Game in central Asia – the courtship, betrayal and invasion of Afghanistan in the 1830s by the emissaries of Her Majesty’s Empire, which is followed by the bloody and summary expulsion of the Brits from Kabul following an Afghani insurrection (shades of the Soviet Union’s final imperial fling in the very same country in the 1980s).

The novel has at its heart the encounter between West and East as embodied in the likeable, complex relationship between Alexander Burnes, leader of the initial British expeditionary party, and the wily, cultured Afghani ruler, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan.

With this book, at last Hensher delivers a fully-furnished novel equipped with the kind of scale and accessibility that should see it simultaneously vie for prizes and sell in good quantities to fans of, say, Barry Unsworth, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro or for that matter Colin Thubron, Peter Hopkirk and Patrick French – as well as to the smaller, cooler constituency to whom he already appeals.

Hensher’s time has come, and Flamingo intends to make a bestseller of him with this magnificent epic novel.

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Review:

Award-winning novelist Philip Hensher announces a radical departure from his earlier books with The Mulberry Empire, an extraordinarily ambitious, sprawling historical epic that deals with the route of the British from Afghanistan in the late 1830s. Hensher has established a reputation as a waspish commentator on contemporary English and European life in previous novels like Pleasured, but in The Mulberry Empire he draws on an earlier tradition of Kipling, Trollope and Conrad to recreate the moment at which the early 19th century eyed Afghanistan as an addition to its growing Asian Empire.

The novel begins in Kabul with the arrival of Burnes, an ambitious young Scot, eager to open up the country to the English. News of his arrival soon reaches the Amir, for whom "the arrival of the new European in town was like the dropping of a rock into the opaque pool of water which was the city, ruffling the surface immediately in ordinary and predictable ways, but disturbing the substance and mass beneath in a manner which could not be seen, or predicted". Hensher then weaves his story between Burnes' return to London, his romance with the daughter of an opium-addicted hero of Trafalgar, the Amir's court, encounters with Carlyle and Palmerston, and the bloody "Great Game" of imperial politics that catapults the novel into the murderous events with which its culminates. Hensher's novel takes on added significance following the events of September 11, but ultimately he is unable to control the vastness of his historical canvas. At times the book unwittingly reads like a parody of the purple colonial prose of Rider Haggard, and many of its descriptions of Afghanistan and its people are painfully exotic and orientalist. Hensher should be applauded for extending his novelist range, but not for the results. --Jerry Brotton

Review:

‘The British Empire has ceased to exist, and the Great Game has been played out. And yet, only last month, 1,700 British troops were dispatched to fight in Afghanistan. Echoes of the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War rumble in collective memory, as they should, because a forgotten history is a present danger… Philip Hensher’s outstanding novel about these events deserves success on its own merits, but the timeliness of its publication will do it no harm.

This is a spacious novel, as it needs to be in order to match the sweep of events. Hensher crams his narrative with fine, humorous, searching portraits. He reveals the significance of the small moment, of great figures seen in close-up, and of a subtle, sensuous intimacy with the fabric of these long-gone lives. The effect is exhilarating.

Hensher’s powerful characterisation is matched by a complex but beautifully-organised narrative, which swings backwards and forwards in time, bringing in anachronisms as well as following a traditional time-line. Hensher lets us be the 21st century readers we really are. Helplessly aware of the future which will engulf Hensher’s characters, we remain trapped in our present, as they do.’ Helen Dunmore, The Times

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