The Glass Palace

glass palaceEver since I read the Ibis trilogy (well, the first two-thirds of it!), I’ve been wanting to read more by Amitav Ghosh. I finally picked up The Glass Palace at the library, but I felt a bit hesitant. This book is about three generations of two families in Burma, India, and Malaya around the turn of the 20th century. Was it going to be nothing but a long slog of poverty, sadness, and war?

But I should have had more faith. Ghosh is one of the best authors I know for taking an absolutely Dickensian cast of characters and making them burst with life. Each person in this novel — and there are many of them — is easy to connect to and keep track of, and I cared about their fates. Ghosh doesn’t confine himself to one country, one language, one social class or religion, to men or women, to the old or the young or to any one point of view, and his books are so, so rich for it.

The book begins with the British invasion of Burma in 1885, over the desire for Burma’s rich natural resource of teak. The Royal Family is sent into exile in India at Ratnagiri, and only a single member of their household, Dolly, is faithful enough — or helpless enough — to stay with the powerless King and Queen. Just before Dolly leaves Burma, she has a brief encounter with an impoverished young Indian teak-worker who has been struck by her beauty: Rajkumar. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich timber exporter, he comes to find her at Ratnagiri. Their love, and their children, provide one long thread that spools through the story.

You can’t write historical fiction about Burma and India during the twentieth century without coming face to face with imperialism and independence. Ghosh does a beautiful job of presenting this from different characters’ viewpoints (only one of which, a minor character, is white.) The most interesting struggle is between two brothers, Dinu and Arjun. Dinu is shy and reclusive, with an artistic temperament. He sees both the British and the Japanese and Germans as equally bad; for him, independence is the only possible solution, but it’s an intellectual solution. Arjun, on the other hand, a generous and genial young man, joined the army just out of school. He has tremendous loyalty to his British CO, and to all the customs of the British army that trained Indian soldiers of every caste and religion to fight and subdue their fellow Indians. He doesn’t want to see himself as a pawn in someone else’s game — who does? — and when it dawns on him that this is what his life has been, it’s an irreparable loss.

Ghosh writes mostly about the middle and upper-middle class in this novel, and about the mobility the last century sometimes afforded. Refugees, migrants, and coolies could take advantage of the demand for natural resources, especially the demand that the world wars created (timber, rubber, oil), and become wealthy. By the same token, a natural disaster, a disease, or a war could wipe out a family’s wealth at a stroke. Colonialist exploitation wasn’t limited to the time the power inhabited the country; it left a legacy that lasted for decades, if not longer. Family joy (and there’s plenty of it in this book) is carved around the exigency of what colonialism leaves behind.

This book is about 450 pages long, and it’s highly entertaining. It’s a dramatic page-turner, it’s often funny and tender, and it’s full of characters who are allowed to change and grow. I enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy so much, and this was different, but just as good. I really recommend it.

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19 Responses to The Glass Palace

  1. Lindsey says:

    Ooh I’ve had this sitting on my shelf for a while now after finding it at a charity shop! Having read your review, I’m now really excited about reading it, it sounds really good!

    • Jenny says:

      It is! I started with the Ibis trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire) and those are spectacular. But this was just wonderful.

  2. buriedinprint says:

    I’m so tired of hearing myself say (or, type) that I need to read Ghosh. He always sounds amazing. Maybe buying them all would help. :)

  3. Swistle says:

    I love “Was it going to be nothing but a long slog of poverty, sadness, and war?” That is exactly the thought I have when I am looking at a book jacket and it mentions generations of a family.

  4. carols44 says:

    This was my first Ghosh and I loved it. recommended it to all, shared it with a Burmese friend who also loved it, read it with my book group – another success. (His writing deserves the Nobel in my opinion). It’s years since I read it but it stays with me. It underlines the tragedy of Aung San Kuu Yyi’s loss of reputation too because she comes through so beautifully in this novel. I must reread. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Jenny says:

      He should send you a thank-you note for all the evangelism! You’re right about how clearly and poignantly the actual history comes through, something I didn’t always know much about.

      • carols44 says:

        He is scrupulous about his research I think. I know he learnt a ‘dead’ language for a middle eastern novel. A serious and very interesting man.

  5. whatmeread says:

    I read this the first time quite a while ago and was stunned by what I learned about the British intervention in Burma. What a shocking story! I love everything I’ve read by Ghosh but especially the Ibis trilogy.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t know anything about this either. Ghosh brings out the larger shape of the history as well as the fate of the individuals so well in his books, I think.

      • whatmeread says:

        Yes, he’s really good at that. He does it well in the trilogy, too. I was not aware that Indian people had been forced to grow opium, and although I knew the opium wars existed, they kind of glossed over the fact, in history class, that they were about the merchants trying to force China to buy opium.

  6. Brona says:

    I really must read Ghosh one day soon. I love this kind of literature.

    • Jenny says:

      Do you mean historical literature? I do too, when it’s done well — some of my favorite novelists are authors of historical novels. (Patrick O’Brian, Laurie King, Dorothy Dunnett, and recently I’ve loved Marlon James’s Night Women, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Nicola Griffith’s Hild.)

  7. Theresa says:

    Thank you for this review; I found five copies in our library system so was able to order it. Sounds like a great book for cosy Fall reading!

  8. librini says:

    Reading now in English, but I would like there was soma explanTion for local words…

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