The Mulberry Empire by Philip Hensher

This was another of times when you judge a book by it’s cover while browsing a second hand book shop, and promised to be a good read judging by the blurb. It is based on the British invasion of Afghanistan in the 1840s, their rivalry with the Russians and their ultimate defeat. It sounded promising, but I was actually a little disappointed.

The main character is the real life figure of Alexander Burnes, an explorer who was believed to be the first Englishman in Kabul. However, there are so many other characters that come and go it’s hard to say he is actually the main one- so many others are introduced at length and re-appear, but are never actually dealt with in much depth and so you don’t really get attached to any of them.

Sir Alexander Burnes

The main plot follows Burnes as he meets the Amir Dost Mohammed, the Emperor of Afghanistan, on a mission to see if the Amir is likely to become an ally of the British- understandably worried about a country to close to their Empire in India and also that of the Russians. Burnes is very impressed by the Amir and returns to London high society to report back. While there he woos Bella Garroway, who he ends up having an illegitimate son with he knows nothing about and ruins her prospects in life. The story then flicks between London and Kabul for the rest of the book.

Burnes then returns to Kabul with a larger party of British who want to replace the intelligent and just Dost Mohammed with the old, corrupt and violent man who was the previous, usurped Amir. Clearly a good plan… He meets Masson, a deserting soldier with a thing for young boys- if you are against homosexual relationships do not read this book, but this doesn’t massively have much to do with the plot despite having a huge chunk of the book based on Masson. Like I said, this happens regularly- there is a huge and pretty much irrelevant section on the Russian diplomat.

Anyway, the British are hopeless and install the hugely unpopular old Amir and runs a corrupt and terrifying court while the Dost Mohammed’s son Akbar gathers his forces to expel the British and bring his father back to power. After some very long winded and embarrassingly true mistakes on behalf of the British, Akbar’s rebellion succeeds and they are driven out of Afghanistan and massacred. Honestly, did the British not see this coming? I know nothing about this period of history and could have told them it was a bad idea. I’m getting sidetracked, but without the strong writing of compelling characters, I had time to get annoyed at them.

I would not recommend this book unfortunately. It had a lot of promise and I usually like the ones told from various viewpoints, but the narrative was a bit haphazard, with lots of irrelevant parts and undeveloped characters. It became a bit of a slog to finish it to be fair, which is a shame. I will have to look a little more closely before buying, and not judge a book by just its cover and blurb quite so much!

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