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Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged
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“Hillsbery’s exploration of what happened to his British uncle who went to India in 1841, never to return, makes achingly vivid how difficult it was to escape one’s preordained class and societal expectations in Victorian England… Great details abound… Marvelous insights into the British in India, along with a glimpse into gay life. This has a narrative sweep reminiscent of Christopher Hibbert’s social histories.” –BOOKLIST **Starred Review**
“There are travelers who can’t write and writers who can’t travel. Fortunately for his readers, Kief Hillsbery can do both. Part travelogue, part family memoir, Empire Made is a fine and moving tale, sensitively explored and beautifully written.”
—Justin Marozzi, author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood
About the Author
Kief Hillsbery is the author of the critically acclaimed War Boy and What We Do Is Secret, which was selected as a finalist for the 2006 Lambda Literary Award in fiction. He has contributed feature articles and columns on outdoor sports to Rolling Stone, Outside, and other magazines.
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Kief Hillsbery - who is British on his mother's side - was interested in the tale of her many-times "great uncle", Nigel Halleck. Halleck went to India in 1841 in the employ of the British East India Company, then in power in most of India. He wrote copious letters home, from which Hillsbery was able discern Halleck's jobs and journeys. Added within the tale of Halleck, Hillsbery intersperses his own fascination with India and his travels, begun when he was a student in the mid-1970's. On that first trip, where Hillsbery traveled through present day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, he looked for the spots referred to in Halleck's letters. Some he found; others didn't exist anymore. He was trying, too, to find Halleck's grave site, and cause of death. There had been some speculation that Halleck ended up being eaten by a tiger, after having abandoned his British identity in Nepal.
Hillsbery book's is a superb look at the Raj, with the politics, economics, and societal factors written from primary sources, like "great-uncle" Nigel's letters. Hillsbery's book is eclectic, with topics ranging from personal identity to the sexual habits of male Pashtuns. Make sure you have access to Wiki as you read the book, as you may have questions about people, places, and events.
Sad to say, this story is so convoluted, I just could not follow along. The narrative ping pongs between the uncle's story, the author's personal story, historical background of the times, and flat-out flights of fancy. The author would foreshadow something, and I'd be looking for more, and then he'd drop it for hundreds of pages, until I could no longer remember what it was he had been leading up to.
In addition, I was really frustrated that although much of the hunt relies on the uncle's letters, the author does not quote them directly. He drops a phrase or two from the letters here and there, but it's almost as though there were a copyright issue and he had to restrict himself to fair use. Lacking the uncle's voice, I got no sense of his personality, so consequently I didn't really care what happened.
In the end, I'm not sure there was enough of a story to draw it out to book length. There were too many instances of "would have," "might have," "it would have been" and the like, that I got the feeling that 99 percent of the story was pure conjecture. I really enjoy reading exhilarating stories from the past that have been completely pieced together by research and interviews (like Erik Larsen's Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania), but for me, this is not one of them.
It's a mix of the author's personal travel history, the story of his long lost great, great uncle in India, and background information on the history of British colonialism in India. These are all interesting, in and of themselves, but all together in one book is too much. The story of the Uncle and the history of the when and where of his life is hard to follow. It's a bouncy narration and a tremendous amount of unnecessary, extra details about minutiae that really have little bearing on the overall story. I finally lost interest two thirds of the way through. It just wasn't for me in the long run.