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The Mulberry Empire

3.33  ·  Rating details ·  267 Ratings  ·  54 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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Jan 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 20, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  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
Tariq Mahmood
Apr 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Aug 24, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Slow and painful account of Afghanistan and Great Game shennanigans. Would have been more interesting to watch a plant grow. Well written, elegant but not a page turner at any stage. Was a great soporific when I could not sleep.
Thom Dunn
Enthralling historical novel based on true accounts. Brilliant language, its cascading sentences remind one of Lawrence Durrell.
Christi Anthony
Some well-written vignettes only loosely held together. Some parts were fun to read, and the story could be compelling, but it ends up being difficult to follow.
Aug 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.9 An interesting take on an unusual period in history. Written in an unusual way with a number of subtle shifts in style which kept things interesting. I would consider reading more books by this author.
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
Dec 02, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
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
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 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
Apr 21, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Gareth Evans
Sep 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jon Box
As a reader enthralled with this period of British history, I was quite familiar with these events involving Britain, Russia, and Afghanistan's part in the Great Game; however, this fictional account put realistic meat on the bones of the facts.

Hensher brought the stories to life and gave the various portrayals that personal touch that I enjoy in historical fiction. Having served in Kabul headquarters for four months last year, I must say some of the Afghan ways of doing business seemed vaguely
Aug 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Feb 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
-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:
Mar 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Wes F
Sep 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 24, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I rarely bail out on a novel, but I'm calling it quits on this. Kindle says I am 62% finished. Hensher's prose is elegant, his commentary on the folly of imperialism sharp and oh so relevant... but it's just... too... damned... slow. I might have stuck with it if this all hadn't already been done- and much more effectively- in Flashman and The Man Who Would be King.
Apr 18, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  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.
Oct 09, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This seemed to be an accurate depiction of the English experience in Persia, India and Afghanistan of the mid 1800's. It was a clash of cultures with no clear 'winner' A picture of attempted domination with continual misunderstanding and occasional acts of brutality. Difficult to read at times, I plowed through it, but with no significant gain of knowledge.
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.
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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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“Emily and Fanny are doing their best to remain poker-stiff, firmly staring in their upright palanquins. But two hours on an elephant is as much as either of them can stand, and—after four times as long as that—they pine, they simply ache for the opportunity to complain, even more than the chance to rest.” 1 likes
“What are we doing here?” Burnes said, almost to himself. “That, Burnes, I cannot tell you. I do not know why anyone leaves his house, to travel ten thousand miles, when all the poetry that has ever been written, all the poetry since the beginning of the world all tells us the single lesson that we would be happiest in our own homes, since that is where happiness is born, and where it lives. What poetry cannot answer is the question that follows from that, whether we men actually want to be happy, or whether we would prefer to be restless. In your case—in the English, excuse me, the British case—I would say that when you have gone home, when you are all old and thinking about what this adventure, this whole centuries-long adventure meant, what it meant to you . . . well, things do not always mean something, but perhaps your adventure, perhaps it meant something. You will sit at home and look into your fires and draw your Cashmire shawls about you, and think that you came here for one reason. Of course, now, you tell yourself all sorts of fairy stories—you are here to sell us your wonderful English goods, you want to set us free, you want us to grow up, you want to educate us and make us worship three gods instead of forty thousand—” “Only one God.” “I stand corrected, Burnes-ji, and I am sure your one God is much more sensible than ours, who are quaint, who have the heads of elephants and monkeys and have blue skin. They are all very good reasons to tell yourself at the time, but they are not, at the bottom, the real reason you came here. You came here not to make yourselves rich, not to make us better and Christian and clean and dressed in Bradford cotton. You believe all this, I know. But when you are old and tired and sleeping in a thousand years’ time, you will start to realize that you came here and took possession of what was not yours for one reason. To surrender it, to give it up. That is the only reason. Do you not know your Shakespeare, Burnes? Have you never seen The Tempest in your London theatres? Do you not think it strange that, so very long ago, before your English kings owned anything at all, your English poet was dreaming of giving it all up, of surrendering what was not yet yours? Of what never would truly be yours? You are not adventurers; you are all Prosperos, waiting for the day you can give it up, drown your book, and return nobly. We endure your presence, because we see that when you look at us, you know that we will take it all back one day. And you want us to. That desire is so strong in you, it makes you build an empire; because if you never had an empire, you would not have one so nobly to surrender. That, Burnes, is what you are doing here. You asked me, and you did not think that I had an answer. But I have an answer, and that is what you are doing here. And now you are tired, and I shall leave you.” 1 likes
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