25 July 2007

Philip Hensher - The Mulberry Empire

I don't usually read historical fiction, it doesn't appeal so much. I think it might be to do with the perceptible strain of an author trying to lever in as much of his research as possible, which distracts from the narrative, and perhaps the inconsistencies and anachronisms arising when applying 20th/21st century dialogue to historical settings. I'd much rather read a writer from that period, than one from now reimagining the period.

But this book had been recommended by several people, as had Hensher in general, so I gave it a go. It's really pretty good. Early on I felt that Hensher loved his own prose a little too much, and that the narrative dragged, but as it developed his presentation of the central characters was convincing.

It is a story of great relevance to today, set during the British war in Afghanistan of the 1830s, but its immediate pertinence is inadvertent and fortuitous - the book was finished in early 2001, before 9/11 which precipitated the invasion.

The research, largely from memoirs by the real protagonists, is worn lightly, and Hensher is most interested in the motivations of each of the characters. He tells a story of great folly - the English hubris in attempting to usurp the Afghan throne in order to control the region - close-up, and without commentary.

The scenes back in England are lesser, although well-observed, and tend to an unsatisfying lack of resolution, but overall the book has a good sense of atmosphere and purpose. I'll definitely read the other Henshers I have on the back of this.


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