In 1839, fifty thousand British Army soldiers marched into Afghanistan, quickly capturing the capital of Kabul. Three years later, a solitary English soldier from that force rode out. The rest were killed by the Afghans, who used tactics that the British never saw coming.
Philip Hensher's The Mulberry Empire tells the story of this early encounter between the West and the Muslim forces of the region. But, there is much more. Along with detailing the intricate beliefs and dealings of the region, Hensher contracts his story overseas with the intricate beliefs and dealings of the "upper crust" of British society. The truths that the Upper Ten Thousand held as dogma were believed unfailingly, and it was with unbelief that they realised that there were other beliefs and other cultures in the world that could hold sway, and yes, even defeat their armies.
It is also the story of the men of this time, and the story of their loves. There is Alexander Burnes who spends so much time in the region that it is unimaginable to him to ever live again in England. There is Bella Garraway, the creme of the debutantes the year that he is the rage of "the season", and with whom he falls madly in love. There are Muslim rulers, who tempt the English to be involved in their territorial wars, and then turn savagely on them when they have served the rulers' purposes. There is the grand sweep of history and a light shone on a time and place that few readers have considered before.
I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Nominated for the Booker Prize in 2002, it shines a light on a period of history I didn't know much about, illuminating the reasons why the West is often in conflict with the peoples of the region. This book is recommended for lovers of historical fiction, for those who seek to understand the results actions can have decades later, and for those ready for a rip-roaring trip into the past.