Beginning in 1885, with the British invasion of Mandalay and the capture of the Burmese king and queen, and encompassing over 100 years to modern-day India and Burma (Myanmar), Amitav Ghosh has created in The Glass Palace
a monument to life in colonial central and Southeast Asia. The story follows three generations from three families, spreading its wings across the world, from Malaya to New York. Yet despite the epic scale, the gentle and intimate detail of the characters and their interwoven relationships removes any need for an understanding of this area of the world in geographical or historical terms. The map at the back of the book is useful for following the characters' travels as their fortunes and rulers (British, Japanese, military government) change, but it is the atmosphere and feel of the era and location that Ghosh captures astutely. Each city or border is not a mark on a map with political significance but a home, a memory and a reality.
With each generation the characters' lives and personalities contrast and intertwine according to the rise and fall of the countries'--and the world's--politics. Rajkumar, the Indian peasant who makes a fortune through teak and his wife Dolly, the breathtakingly beautiful maid of the Burmese royal family, contrast to Uma the Indian widow who becomes a champion for Indian independence after her liberating time in the USA and the Americanised Matthew who makes a life in his half-native Malaya as a rubber plantation owner, while Uma's Bengali nieces and nephew contrast to Rajkumar and Dolly's newly wealthy sons. Yet they all suffer in the Second World War, whether as a soldier, refugee or evacuee discriminated against because of their skin colour. Ghosh's focus on the war in Burma, from the viewpoint of Indian officers in the British army, who have been imbued through their regimental history to believe in their allegiance to "their" country (i.e. Britain and not India), reveals a side of both world wars that is rarely told. The struggle these British subjects experience, as to whether colonial or fascist masters are better, is not something that shaped the general European knowledge of the Second World War, where "good" and "evil" seemed much clearer.
However, The Glass Palace is not only about war; and the full circle it travels, from one glass palace in the lush and rich 19th-century Burma to another glass palace in repressed and impoverished Myanmar is, seemingly with ease from the lush and rich prose, satisfying and informative. It is a novel in which the characters will always go on living, and whose ideals will never die. --Olivia Dickinson
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'A distinctive voice, polished and profound' TLS 'Ambitious, multigenerational, The Glass Palace is akin to a 19th century Russian novel...a rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland.' LA Times 'An absorbing story of a world in transition, brought to life through characters who love and suffer with equal intensity.' JM Coetzee 'A Doctor Zhivago for the Far East.' The Independent
Rajkumar Raha is 12 when he is orphaned on a sampan tethered in a mangrove-lined estuary. He makes his way from Bengal into Burma, to Mandalay, just ahead of the British arriving to depose King Thebaw. On the eve of the Royal Family's departure into exile, Raha sees, in the Glass Palace, Dolly, the Queen's 10-year-old handmaid. This is obsession at first sight. Almost 20 years later, having made his fortune in timber, Raha seeks out Dolly in her exile in Ratnagiri. Throughout the novel, the Empire expands and then retracts, fortunes are won and lost, the face of the world changes. The novel follows Raha's family through three generations and many cities. It teems with servants of the British Empire and with their colonial subjects. This is the East as seen by its own people, described by a writer whose allegiance is simply to the human. Ghosh is one of the most sympathetic post-colonial voices to be heard today. He looks at love and loyalty, and examines questions of Empire and responsibility, of tradition and modernity. This is a funny, sad, entertaining, wise and - ultimately - a hopeful book. I loved it. Review by AHDAF SOUEIF. Editor's note: Ahdaf Soueif is the author of The Map of Love. (Kirkus UK)