The Mulberry Empire

Not only has my reading slowed to a slouched dawdle, my chances to write up reviews are rare. The chap is on duty though, so here goes…

The Mulberry Empire
Philip Hensher
(Flamingo, 2002)

Mighty military forces play out their power struggle in Afghanistan, forcing one regime change after another. It’s the dawn of the Victorian era and the start of The Great Game, where Great Britain and Russia tussle over the asian subcontinent without caring what becomes of the lands they war over.

Hensher uses multiple points-of-view to convey the scale of the story, contrasting the views from abroad (both in England and St Petersburg) with the views on the ground (both Afghani and European). It’s a good device but sometimes it seems too like babbling voices. It’s not a good sign when you groan when yet another narrative voice is introduced, especially when it’s in a new typeface as well.

There’s also the juxtaposition of oral and written storytelling, of the folk memory versus the written memoir. One English character obsesses in writing down the Afghan oral stories he hears. There are some fantastic moments of storytelling, such as the repetition of “and the snow was crimson with blood” near the end.

Yet the overall impression is that the structure is too fragmentary. I didn’t engage with any of the key narrators, I didn’t become invested in the stories being told. And in a novel about storytelling, I think that’s a flaw.

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