Ever 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.