Philip Hensher is Chief Literary Critic for the Spectator, and regularly reviews in the best UK and US newspapers and journals. His previous books include Kitchen Venom and The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife.
In 1839, about 50,000 British troops entered Afghanistan to replace the amir with someone more palatable to the Empire. In this fictionalized account, we meet Burnes, a British explorer who ventures into the capital city of Kabul and befriends the soon-to-be-ousted Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. Through no planning of his own, Burnes becomes an emissary for the British government and attempts to forge a relationship with Afghanistan. The novel switches between Afghanistan and England, and in addition to Burnes, the reader meets many other characters, among them Bella, the woman who falls for Burnes but won't follow him on his exotic journeys; Charles Masson, a deserter of the English forces who one day finds himself in Kabul and who later plots the downfall of Burnes; and Vitkevich, Burnes's Russian counterpart, who is attempting to double-cross the amir. Hensher, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award for Kitchen Venom, combines numerous characters, plot lines, locales, and time shifts to tell an incredibly complex saga of rulers, empires, politics, imperialism, and revolt. The past events of which he writes mirror the present and maybe the future, giving the book a timeless quality. This well-executed work will appeal to serious fans of historical fiction. Recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/02.]-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
'There is pleasure here, in passion and in absurdity, in landscape and in conversation, in costume and in food. There is pleasure, above all, in writing. A delightful entertainment, a timely social and political commentary, and a highly literary and ambitious novel.' Ahdaf Soueif, Guardian 'Outstanding... Hensher 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.' Helen Dunmore, The Times 'A huge, perhaps unique achievement... deeply human, gorgeous, glittering and never dull.' Murrough O'Brien, Independent on Sunday 'Exuberant, overflowing with life, highly-coloured, entrancing: a novel to lose yourself in... Nabokov said that the novelist must be storyteller, teacher, and enchanter. In this novel Hensher is triumphantly all three.' Allan Massie, Scotsman 'Loaded with exotic local detail, from London to Calcutta, St Petersburg to Kabul... Irresistible.' Daily Mail 'A remarkable achievement. I can pay Philip Hensher no higher compliment than to say his overview of the follies of "history" recalls War and Peace... The rich imagery and the vivid characterisation of a splendidly varied cast make The Mulberry Empire a truly tremendous read.' Mail on Sunday 'A triumph of style and research: a novel as brocaded, exuberant, colourful and violent as its subject matter.' LRB 'An exotic cautionary tale alive with topical relevance, ideal for lovers of superbly written historical fiction.' Sunday Express
Hensher's ambitious new novel (his first to be published in the United States) concerns a lesser-known chapter of Afghan history the British occupation of Kabul in 1839. In the mid-1830s, Alexander Burnes, a British officer, became the London sensation du jour after publishing a book on his adventures in the East, including his encounters with the Afghan prince, Amir Dost Mohammed Khan. His book roused British interest in Afghanistan, a possible new colony and market. Fearing that the Russians might take Kabul first, the British marched into the city, ousted the Amir, and replaced him with one favored by their ally, the Punjabi king. Though the British troops succeeded and remained encamped outside Kabul for three years, the Afghanis at last attacked and sent 16,000 British troops retreating through the valley of their death: they were ambushed, and only one survived. Adopting a part timeless, part ironic storytelling voice, Hensher follows several characters in this vast tapestry: Burnes, of course, and the Amir, but also Bella Garraway, the woman the Amir courts during his year in London; Charles Masson, a British deserter who finds refuge in Kabul; and Vitkevich, a Wilde-like Russian emissary, among many others. Mastering the light touch necessary for a complex history, Hensher moves easily from realm to realm, though he best captures the vanities of society whether of Britain's "upper few thousand" or Moscow's salons. The shifting focus weakens the drama, but what Hensher loses in tension he makes up for in information. Thus the reader learns Persian has six words for mulberry a holy fruit of Islam and Pushto, uncountable. For the post-modern, post-empire reader, ironies abound, and gently as Hensher tells it, the tale is cautionary: any nation should think twice before unseating a foreign prince. (Sept. 3) Forecast: The novel's desultory pace may deter some readers, but the subject matter could hardly be more timely, and prominent reviews will drive demand. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.