Molly Guinness

Gilding the lily

Molly Guinness on Allan Mallinson’s latest novel

Molly Guinness on Allan Mallinson’s latest novel

Allan Mallinson’s hero, Lieutenant-Colonel Matthew Hervey, returns in Warrior with his usual mixture of courage and kindness, his talent for friendship and a military instinct that is second to none. The first scene shows us, with some high quality gore, that there is trouble in the Cape Colony: ‘He fired the carbine point-blank, taking off the top of the spearman’s head like a badly sliced egg.’ We are then transported to London, where Hervey is tied up for a few days with some complex administrative tasks; he has to organise a funeral, have conversations with a nun, his wife, a bishop, his former lover and various important figures in his regiment. The conversations and journeys to and fro across London do rather seem to happen in real time, but they serve to show that Hervey’s qualities are by no means confined to the battlefield. We see a man not altogether happy, but conscientious to the point of heroism.

Finally, he reaches the Cape, and discussions about the Zulu king Shaka begin. The king seems unusually barbaric, but things take a slightly unexpected turn when their embassy reaches his palace. At this point the reader must concentrate and pick up some rudimentary Zulu in order to follow the thread. Indeed, a great deal of the pleasure to be derived from Mallinson’s prose seems to be in Getting the Reference; there is a reworking of Julius Caesar’s murder, and the comrades quote Horace, Pliny, Shakespeare and the bible liberally as they march. Usually conversation progresses something like this:

[Hervey to Somervile]: ‘I have always thought of you as formed in Pliny’s mould.’

Somervile nodded gravely. ‘The comparison is favourable. Pliny was an assiduous observer … But perhaps I should add “novi omnes dies”, for certainly Pliny never saw such sights as these.’

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