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The Mulberry Empire

3.32 of 5 stars 3.32  ·  rating details  ·  214 ratings  ·  48 reviews
In the spring of 1839, some fifty thousand British forces entered Afghanistan with “the full pomp of Empire,” possessed of the certainty that they would replace the Amir with someone less hostile toward their ally, the King of the Punjab. Three years later, a single British horseman rode out of the Afghan mountains into India—the sole survivor of the original vast continge ...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published August 27th 2002 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2002)
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This is an historical novel about Afghanistan (though not a traditional historical novel since, among other departures from tradition, what seems like a romantic thread comes to a climax, produces an illegal child, but doesn't end happily or even decisively). Another departure is that the writer is British but his title character is not Alexander Burnes, the Englishman, but Dost Mohammed Khan, the Afghan.

Most of the characters are real, including both Burnes and Dost Mohammed, and there's a list
The Mulberry Empire is a historical novel (Surprise, right?) about "The Great Game" in general and the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 in particular. Knowing only that, it pushes all my buttons. The Great Game referrers to the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia in the 1800's. Rivalry is a very tepid word for wars that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and destroyed cultures but that's what happened back in the days when it was expected that powe ...more
Tariq Mahmood
I live for books like these, authors who can go back effortlessly in history
and make a novel of factual events. Philip has gone further in this one, not
only does a masterfully explanation of the era both in the then of Britain and
Afghanistan, but he also provides a context of the personal lives of the main
characters of his story, Burns, Bella and Dost Mohammed. It is a fantastic read
for anyone interested in the first Afghan war in which an army of 16000 was
slaughtered by the vengeful Afghans. I
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
This book is a hard one to rate, because it is at turns fantastic and boorish. The characters are pretty one dimensional (especially the women) and a lot of the plot is brutish. However, there are moments of sparklingly beautiful description and some really insightful interactions (despite badly turned characters to start with) as well as multi-threaded narratives. I love books (and movies for that matter) that use multi-threaded narratives. I think it really allows the reader to more fully expl ...more
Jamie Marks
I like Philip Hensher's writing, and I wanted to like this, his first LONG-format book. Its problem, though, is its length. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-41/42)is rife with ironies and ultimate meaninglessness, but is it worth hours and hours of reading simply to have battered into us just how meaningless it was? Hensher manages to get in truly gorgeous set-pieces: Queen Victoria's cruel little smile and her hilarious attempts to pronounce a fragment of Sappho some imperialist has brought bac ...more

An involved narrative about a little known time, the British invasion of Afghanistan, it centers around Alexander Burnes. As one of the first espionage masters, he does his job well because of a genuine concern for the people he befriends. Though this does him no good in the end.

Fascinating, too, was the story of the woman he loves and leaves behind. Bella is left to face society while trying to keep her secret hidden, without the support of Burnes. Shades of French Lieutenant's woman and even
Thom Dunn
Enthralling historical novel based on true accounts. Brilliant language, its cascading sentences remind one of Lawrence Durrell.
I believe Hensher was a literary critic with a well known paper, has been a booker prize judge and edits new versions of Dickens etc so I was intrigued to see what he would produce.
Hands up I couldnt write a good book in a million years but he has really exposed himself to critism with this book, should have used a pseudomyn.
At over 500 pages this is a very very long book and of our group of 10 I was the only one who perserved and read it all.
Trying too hard to offer something to everyone, se
Tells the story of the first Anglo-Afghan war in the 1830s. Everything is seen from the perspective the characters who somehow were involved directly or indirectly.

the main characters are, Alexander Brunes, a British envoy to Afghanistan to woo Dost Mohammad Khan. He is a voice of reason within the colonial force who requests caution and restraints but fails. His lover, Bella, who suffers and lives a sad and lonely life in the absence of Burnes. Her dreams are shattered and lives a reclusive li
Simon Mcleish
Originally published on my blog here in January 2009.

What does the First Afghan War mean to people today? Like many colonial conflicts, it is almost totally forgotten, but it had a big effect on the history of British rule in India, and so influenced the formation of one of the great powers in today's world. The purpose of the war was basically to determine whether Britain or Russia would dominate Afghanistan, but it turned out to be one of the biggest military disasters ever experienced by a co
This is not my usual style of novel....despite it being my beloved historical fiction. I picked it up at a used book store, sat down and fell in love in the first chapter. After that things get sketchy. I was bored for much of the first third of the book...not so much with the author's style, which is beautiful and poignant and gritty, but with the procession of a number of skimming-the-surface characters. As we go back and forth and get to know each better I did find my heroes and the book held ...more
Feb 27, 2012 Patrick rated it 1 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: No one
Tiresome, endless, and by turns precious and sophomoric, this rambling set of barely connected story-lines around the 19th C. English venture into Afghanistan fails most where I really hoped it would succeed, in providing real insight into historical and contemporary events in that corner of the world. The many petty characters are painted with such excruciating and fanciful detail, that even though based in some cases on historical figures, the depictions are so absurd that I ended up dismissin ...more
This is quite a strange book. Blending historical fiction (though the fiction bit should definitely be emphasised), romance, adventure, satire and pretty much everything in between Dickens, Tolstoy and post-modernism, it's maybe less a novel and more a literary show of force by Hensher. The thing is, though, that Hensher might've been too ambitious here. He's obviously an accomplished writer (which I didn't really expect, after reading some of his short stories and not particularly liking them), ...more
I give this book, depending on parts I either didn't like much or really liked, anywhere from 2 to 4 stars so the stars average out to 3***. I chose this novel beause of retelling of the First Anglo-Afghan War [1839-1842], something I didn't know much about. I was disappointed, because the conduct of the war was limited to the last few chapters and was mostly the final ambush and destruction of the British Indian army on their way back to the cantonment in Jalalabad. Only one man makes it back; ...more
A book of contrasts that splits opinions. It is too long and labourious in parts but there is good reading to be had in there and I finished the book with an overall sense of enjoyment. I felt he captured a brutish time in our history using its impact on the lives of the characters reasonably well and I still remember vividly some of the good parts; so that says something for his writing.
Masterly characterisation, incredible atmosphere in this examination of the political shenanigans between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan in the 1830s. But Slow, slow, slow beyond words; and if you have greater patience than me you will love it. It's so well written I felt a heel deserting it. But desert it I did.
Gareth Evans
I bought this book blind; having read King of the Badgers and the Northern Clemency I wanted another book by Philip Hensher. I was a bit disconcerted to receive historical fiction rather than a modern soap opera or saga and was certainly put off by the oriental opening. So the book stood for a while, being passed up for other (I now know lesser) books. Tis is a very clever novel. The story of the first Afghan War is an interesting (and to me reasonably familiar) one. Hensher's slightly oblique a ...more
Kate Millin
The first book I have read about the Afghan campaign by the English in the early years of Victoria's reign. It was interesting if a little gruesome in places
Catherine Siemann
I really loved the first book by Hensher I read, The Northern Clemency; he does something similar here by inhabiting the rather alienated inner lives of a large number of characters over time, but in this case, his characters are early Victorians, so that there's a strange double consciousness. For a novel that's about the First Afghan War, I found it interesting that the war takes up very little actual space in the text -- it's the lead ups that are most significant. On the one hand, it jumps a ...more
I had just finished Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" and wanted to read more by this author. "The Mulberry Empire," a fictionalized account of the British empire-building and subsequent defeat in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842, is larger in scope but every bit as engaging as "The Northern Clemency." Parts of it, even a century and a half after the events depicted, are terrifying. Anyone who thinks Afghanistan will be a pushover this time around needs to bone up on history.
This wonderful story of the first British-Afghan War smacks you in the head just the way we presume the British were smacked in the head by a royal family they perceived as vassals and who turned out to be powerful beyond belief. There are some wonderful quotable passages about cultural relativism and the Mistake of Colonialism that do more to teach the story of why the British Empire failed than any number of graduate level history courses. A must read.
-Como contar unos hechos que desembocan en gran violencia, pero sin apenas retratarla-.

Género. Novela histórica.

Lo que nos cuenta. Relato novelado, que mezcla personajes reales y de ficción, de los acontecimientos y circunstancias que llevaron a la Primera Guerra Afgana, más que de la propia guerra.

¿Quiere saber más del libro, sin spoilers? Visite:
This is a novel that connects history -- it moves from 19th century London, to 19th century Russia, to India and Afghanistan. The focus is Kabul and how the Afghans defeated the British in the Second Afghan War.

The imagery in this novel seers into one's memory. There are scenes in this book that I will never forget. I am not so sure how well this works as a novel. But as a history, it is just amazing.
Apr 24, 2009 Heman rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: vincent
Shelves: fiction
A fiction set in 19th century, which involves British, Afghan, Indian, Persian, and Russian characters. A whole bunch of characters who interact in a somewhat historically accurate tale of Afghanistan, the Mulberry Empire. Nice story, but what struck me as odd is that I think you could open any chapter and start reading without being at a significant loss.
John Tintera
Not much happens in this finely nuanced story of a British officer who stumbles into an important historical moment, but the writing is lush and the characters compelling. It's a stretch to compare it with Dickens (which the cover copy dares to do), but The Mulberry Empire is entertaining and enlightening all the same.
Wes F
Incredible read! Fascinating historical fiction surrounding the events (storming of the Bala Hissar fort in Old Kabul) that led to the Second Afghan-British War. Hensher does an amazing job bringing the characters in this book to life and writes in a taut, engaging style that keeps one turning the pages.
Where was I when this book was first published in 2002? It's still amazingly timely and prescient, as well as being profoundly moving. It recounts, in fiction, the disastrous story of the first British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839. The ripple effects are still rippling.
I'm probably being a bit mean and should give it 3.5. I enjoyed it but read another book at the same time so did not give it full attention. It is a part of history I know nothing about so was very interesting if sketchy. He has a very easy style
Nov 19, 2013 Deb marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I want to read this history of Afghanistan since 1800s... but I get too angry and frustrated. What a mess the Brits created with their colonialism, and the Russians with their war. It is too frustrating to read this book.
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Hensher was born in South London, although he spent the majority of his childhood and adolescence in Sheffield, attending Tapton School.[2] He did his undergraduate degree at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford before attending Cambridge, where he was awarded a PhD for work on 18th century painting and satire. Early in his career he worked as a clerk in the House of Commons, from which he was fired over th ...more
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