It might come to be seen that all of William Dalrymple’s previous books have served  as his apprenticeship for The Return of a King; The Battle for Afghanistan.  No one else could have written such a book, for no living writer has so completely unpicked the narrative threads of Britain’s greatest imperial disaster.  Masterly research underpins the book. Perhaps the facts of the war are well enough known. There is not much new to say regarding the events. Yet Dalrymple’s rich description of the region sparkles. The leading protagonists, with all their conflicting cruelties and bravery is done with dash, depth and flair.

Above all, Dalrymple is that most rare of all historians – a gifted  storyteller  . The book tangs with the clash of blades. He conjures the vineyards through which the doomed East India Sepoys retreat. We smell the apricots in the orchards. We feel the slicing sleet and snow biting at the faces of the forlorn soldiers of the Essex regiment as they make their last stand at Gandamak.

Dalrymple’s greatest discovery and the real treasure of the book is the Afghan poetry that was written at the time, and which remained, until now, largely unknown in the West. A view of the conflict emerges that is Homeric in scope and form, and one senses a real delight on the part of the author for the epic meat of the poetry.  The book finishes with his own account of a journey to Gandamak and a meeting with the descendents of the very tribesmen who fell upon the starving British in 1842. The imperial follies of the past and present answer to each other across a landscape littered with corpses and ghosts. In this way Dalrymple’s book comes full circle.

By Steven O’Brien


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