The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher, book review: An ambitious novel that plays with convention, and is a joy to read

 
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The Independent Culture

Philip Hensher's most ambitious novel to date, The Emperor Waltz, draws together several narrative strands, each telling the story of a group of outsiders and celebrating their difference from society.

Its various plotlines twist and turn as often as the author's style shifts from bawdy dialogue-led comedy to richly detailed and lyrical description. Even within the same time frame – sometimes the same scene – Hensher plays with conventions regarding chronology and character. And in the process, his sense of fun bounces off the pages of a novel that is always a joy to read.

You might expect the scenes exploring the lives of the characters opening London's first gay bookshop in 1979 to be the strongest, as they have the closest connection to the author's own life experience. But equally strong are the scenes set in and around the influential Bauhaus art school in 1920s Germany. For me, the weakest narrative strand is the one exploring the martyrdom of Saint Perpetua in the third-century Roman Empire. Perpetua's world is brilliantly established, but then all too briefly explored so that she seems to have little idea what Christianity stands for other than providing her with an opportunity for self-sacrifice.

But inevitably in a 600-page book of such ambition, different narratives will appeal to different readers. Perhaps the most fun is to be had in catching the subtle connections which echo between the different time frames. These range from the way several characters smooth down their (often red) hair, to the fading in and out of the piece of music by Strauss that gives the novel its title. There are also echoes that resound with the emotional experiences of several characters and with the prejudice they encounter, whether homophobic, racial or anti-Semitic. Through the extended metaphor of the Bauhaus students' drawings of intersecting lines, Hensher raises questions about the linearity of time, and about how the actions of very different people living in very different societies can affect each other – if only we as readers are willing to see these connections.

Of course, the novel-as-echo-chamber isn't a new invention; a successful recent example being David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. While The Emperor Waltz may take in fewer cultures and periods of history, it offers an equally epic take on the human experience by illuminating the lives of countless minor characters. Again, each reader is bound to have his or her favourites – among mine are the kids getting drunk and sniffing poppers while their parents chat downstairs at a London dinner party. But each member of the supporting cast has a distinct voice, that is almost instantly established and with each of which I feel I could happily linger for much longer.

Another element is the appearance, two thirds of the way through the book, of the voice of the author himself. During a stay in hospital, Hensher shares many of his thoughts about human behaviour and relationships, and the device opens up the creative process and encourages the reader to look at how his ideas are transmuted into fiction. So when Hensher dismisses the Christian beliefs of a nurse he meets, I'm left questioning whether his exploration of Saint Perpetua's faith isn't incomprehensible after all, but rather the fictional expression of his own feelings about Christianity.

Shortly afterwards, the owner of the gay bookshop shares his belief that books can change attitudes and change the world. As an entertaining and absorbing exploration of what binds us together as human beings, The Emperor Waltz is just that kind of book. Read it and allow yourself to become a better person.

Matt Cain is the former culture editor of 'Channel 4 News'. His debut novel, 'Shot Through the Heart', is published by Pan Macmillan

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