THE MULBERRY EMPIRE
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.