There is nothing like a stately, well-crafted novel that creates a populous world entirely its own, that simultaneously pulls you up sharp and drags you along willingly. And contrary to the pay-off you were expecting, this *is* such a novel. But I didn't love it as much as that suggests.
Nobody can accuse Philip Hensher of lacking in ambition or being insufficiently protean: indeed with his books progressing further and further away geographically and chronologically - from contemporary London ("Kitchen Venom"), to Cold War-era Berlin ("Pleasured") and now 19th Century Afghanistan with "The Mulberry Empire" - we might be forgiven for expecting that his next book will be Jim Crace's "Quarantine." ("Pleasured," incidentally, is a superb book, and contains easily the most brilliant opening chapters of any novel of the 90s, an attribute often wrongly accredited to Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love.")
But even though Hensher says here on Amazon that the subject chose him rather than he choosing it, it's clear in the reading that he was also making a forced effort, spurred on apparently by A.S. Byatt, simply to write a big important book. His publishers consider it "an earthquake, a carnival, an awe-inspiring achievement." But they would say that, wouldn't they?
The good things about "The Mulberry Empire" are indeed numerous: it is beautifully written with not a word out of place; it has an air of diligent research and truth worn lightly; it excels in its portrayal not only of London (the scene in Hatter's Society permitting a rare and welcome outlet for Hensher's wit) but of Afghanistan's lands and cities; and it is a pleasurable read overall.
But the whole does not seem greater than the sum of its parts. In particular I felt let down by Hensher's inability to illustrate what he considered one of his primary interests in writing the novel: that is, "the calm expansiveness of the Islamic mind." In the circumstances of the last year which make Afghanistan of so much contemporary interest, one would have thought this was a point well worth establishing. But it fails. Although the Afghan ruler at the start of the novel, the Amir Dost Mohammed Khan, is both calm and expansive and also a good man, by virtue of his masterly inactivity he is less a presence than an absence. Of the main Afghan characters it is his son Akbar who stands out. Unfortunately, as he masterminds the vicious massacre of the retreating British forces, it is less the calm expansiveness in the Islamic mind that he illustrates than brutal zealotry. And some might say that that was an attribute that it is hardly helpful or necessary to reinforce.
So although Hensher's sympathies, rightly, are with the Afghan people, and we are well capable ourselves of denouncing the foolish hubris of the British occupying forces, he ends up, through the brutal sadism of their slaughter, tilting the balance of sympathy back to them and near the end he needs to remind us just what to think:
"And so the tale is done, and justice restored, and wisdom and virtue triumphed. Ended, the interlude of the English and their vainglory; over in four winters; ended, that mulberry empire, that season of wrong."
No doubt he was limited by what really happened. Nonetheless, read "The Mulberry Empire" for the wholly fictional parts, for the journey rather than the destination, and for the fine characters in the likes of Bella Garraway, Stokes, Masson and Vitkevich, which are the best of it.