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The Mulberry Empire - Philip Hensher

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Author: Philip Hensher / Genre: Fiction

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      22.03.2007 17:27
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      Could have been much better

      This was so disappointing; it should have been such a good book. It had everything going for it in terms of subject matter and author. "Prepare to be dazzled" said the blurb on the front cover. Well I was prepared, but I wasn't dazzled. A Booker prize judge admitted recently he didn't read all the books from cover to cover. I wish I'd thought of that instead of adopting my usual "I've-started-so-I'm-damn-well-going-to-finish" attitude. Really, this wasn't worth the time expended on reading it, and I ought to have chucked it into a corner long before the end.

      Let's deal with the author first; after all, he was responsible. Chief literary critic of The Spectator, former Booker prize judge (not the aforementioned skimmer) and acclaimed author of three novels prior to this one. So should be good.

      The setting is the 1830s when Russia and Britain were vying for control of Afghanistan. Then it was called the Great Game; now we call it régime change, among other things. Considering this episode resulted in one of the most ignominious retreats ever by the British Army, neither we nor Russia seem to have taken that lesson on board. The incumbent ruler is Dost Mohammed, who was removed from power in favour of Shah Shuja, supported by the British. The Afghans then revolted, threw out Shah Shuja, and the British, reinstated Dost Mohammed, and gradually massacred the British Army as they retreated from Kabul to Jallalabad.

      So much for the bare bones of history. For the novelist there is a wealth of possibilities: exotic location, a cast of unlikely larger-than-life characters thrown together, the ruthlessness, and the violence never far below the surface. Hensher's approach is to describe it all, moving from location to location, right beside the movers and shakers as they plot and negotiate. And there is no doubt he writes beautifully, with some arresting and vivid descriptions both of people and places, and movingly, especially at the end. Vindicates my hanging in there, I suppose.

      The problem is the mishmash of styles. It is part love story, part travelogue, part Victorian novel, part adventure novel, and the style of writing changes accordingly but none of the threads is fully realised and developed. To integrate these successfully requires superhuman skill and it doesn't work here.

      The resulting structure is so vast he loses control. Not only do we encounter the movers and shakers, we are also introduced to just about everyone they come into contact with, and the minutiae of their lives, and their contacts' lives, to an extent that becomes tedious. There are episodes recounted in great detail whose relevance is peripheral to the narrative but allow the author to indulge himself in yet another style: the meetings and characters of a London literary society; the leap forward to the modern traveller retracing the steps of a predecessor who is also one of the characters in the book. This latter episode is called an Anthropological Interlude and is printed in a different typeface. At this point I thought if the author distanced himself any further from his material he would be out of sight.

      Inasmuch as the book has a central character - for many take centre-stage at different points - it is Alexander Burnes. Fêted by London society for his book on travels in Afghanistan he becomes chief negotiator for British interests. Unfortunately, if there is one character who fails to come alive it is he. He is self-effacing and unassuming. Boring describes him well. When he is despatched on his mission, his long sea journey is given the detailed style-treatment, by the device of a journal written to Bella, his beloved (which he then throws into the sea - the journal, not the beloved). Looking back, I was surprised to see it only took up 21 pages. It seemed to go on for ever.

      With the introduction of his Russian opposite number, Vitkevich, I had hopes that things would pick up. Again we have a scene-setting, in-depth exploration of his background but then as a character he kind of fizzles out, offering little or nothing to the development of the plot other than his presence. Similarly with Masson, an army deserter, we learn an infuriating amount about his immediate past and how and why he ends up in Kabul at this time, but as a character he has no depth.

      But where the focus remains on the current train of events, and the narrative flow remains taut, characters come alive. I particularly enjoyed the vignettes of the Edens, the Governor General of India and his spinster sisters. The description of Emily's and Fanny's stoical English fortitude in the face of foreign climates and customs is delightful, while at the same time highlighting the abyss between the two cultures. In fact, the whole episode with the Army of the Indus and its caricatured personalities is excellently done, and while there are black comic moments, the sense of impending doom is all-pervading.

      And then there's Dost Mohammed. Now he does come alive. Clever, cunning, controlling. He could have been a superb central character but the possibilities are lost in the undergrowth of detail and literary trickery. Instead we wait in vain for his "two journeys" (the sub-title of the book), the first of which occurs about three-quarters of the way through.

      I do not require that a novel progresses in an orderly fashion from A to C via B, but I do like to sense that the author is in control of the material, however loosely put together. While I admire Hensher's ability to switch from style to style, this is supposed to be a novel, not a literary exercise. He reminds me of the Kabul story-tellers whom he so vividly describes sitting under the mulberry trees, narrating epics which last whole days. This kind of oral tradition relies on two things: the audience's knowledge of what happens and the teller's ability to embellish a different facet of the story with each retelling. It doesn't really work here. The canvas is too vast, and although there are some excellently painted scenes the linking narrative is too muddled and over-complex.

      When the end finally comes, after 526 pages, the reader turns the last page to find yet more - a glossary, a list of "errors and obligations" and a cast of characters numbering over 100. The characters have helpful descriptions tagged on to them, such as "An illustrious connection (rather disappointing) of Lord Palmerston" or "Mohammed, a smelly boy". Some are listed as "dead before the action begins". Now you know, if you hadn't already long suspected, that the Great Game is not in the story, but in the Game the author has been playing with you. Less Mulberry Empire, more here we go round the mulberry bush.

      There is a really good novel about this period - George Macdonald Fraser's "Flashman”. I commend that to you instead.


      Cover price £7.99, Amazon price £6.39.

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