The breakthrough novel from Britain’s most brilliant young critic.
With ‘The Mulberry Empire’, Philip Hensher with 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 a 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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The Mulberry EmpireReview:
‘Composing the final sentences of his novel on Good Friday 2001, Philip Hensher could not have known that by the time The Mulberry Empire was published, the name of the place he was writing about, the "jewelled city of Kabul", would once again be on everyone's lips. And while postcolonial awareness means that London isn't dancing the "Cabool Cotillion" as it did some 160 years ago, the progress of history also means that today's power reshuffle has cost thousands more Afghani lives than the ill-starred British adventure of 1839.
The novel, starting some few years before that date, moves between Afghanistan on the one hand and Britain and Russia, the two powers vying to possess it, on the other. Alexander Burnes, who is on a geographical expedition, waits in a Kabuli house for an audience with the Amir Dost Muhammad Khan, prince of the Afghans. When Burnes returns to London and publishes Travels into Bokhara and Cabool , he is received by royalty, feted by society, loved by Bella Garraway and crystalised into an apologist for "benevolent" and expanding imperialism. He returns to the east as an agent of empire.
The counterpoint to the triumphal, public, outward-bound – and ultimately disastrous – movement of imperial expansion is the disgrace and retreat into the countryside of Bella Garraway. But in her banishment, with her life pared down to essentials, Bella finds true love and happiness. The story of Bella, in her ruined, moated castle, its unused rooms still with false memories, chimes with the story of an Afghani woman, Jamila. And the story of Jamila, whose lover loses her by going out to seek wealth before returning (too late) to claim her, is in its turn a contrast to the story of Akbar, who acts – and quickly – to claim what is his.
The novel is full of such deft, patterned echoes, such hints at similarity and contrast. In one throwaway moment Hensher offers us an image: a river and in it "a table, upturned, floating down. And in the table stood a man with a long pole . . . the table drifted along, pushed by the current. The man in his makeshift boat stirred confidently, ineffectively at the river . . . and the river drove him onwards." If this is a metaphor for life, then the image of "the Amir's empire, so carefully subdued and brought together, like a basket weaved of Jew's-hair thread" will serve as a metaphor for what art does to life. And The Mulberry Empire does this with delicacy and gusto. There is pleasure here, in passion and in absurdity, in landscape and in conversation, in costume and in food. There is pleasure, I think, above all, in writing. The novel pays elegant homage to Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Balzac and many others. It puts forward brilliantly realised minor characters then allows them to sink back, out of sight, into their unobserved lives. It offers odd little aperçus and improvisations. It has been said that artists are the antennae of society. So perhaps Hensher did sense, early last year and the year before that, that Afghanistan was floating, once again, into the sights of the powerful. Hensher has given us a delightful entertainment, a timely social and political commentary, and a highly literary and ambitious novel.’
Ahdaf Soueif, Guardian
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Book Description FLAMINGO, 2002. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 7139276