on June 7, 2004
This book is a giant amongst English language Asian novels and must surely elevate Amitav Ghosh to the heady heights where Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth already sit.
The saga begins in 1885 with the British expulsion of the last king of Burma from Mandalay to permanent exile in Ratnagiri on the west coast of India. It continues through to the very end of the twentieth century and the fortunes of modern day Myanmar and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The story is entwined with the life and times of Rajkumar, his wife Dolly, their children and grandchildren and various lifelong friends. Aged only eleven when he first sets his eyes on ten year old Dolly, he falls in love and that love forms the main thread of the story. Dolly leaves Mandalay to continue her service with the exiled royal family and is destined for spinsterhood until Rajkumar leaves Burma to track her down exactly two decades later.
The story unfolds against the backdrop of the living political history of Burma, Malaya and India over some 120 years. The challenging issues of colonialism, racialism, independence movements and the two world wars are entwined with the family fortunes. Rajkumar, from a penniless orphan, becomes a giant in the Burmese timber industry winning major supply contracts in the face of competition from established western businesses. Meanwhile the last few years of the royal family's exile is described with such detail that you almost imagine Ghosh was a fly on the wall.
He clearly did much research to be able to describe so graphically the Burmese timber industry - one section describing the death of a working elephant from anthrax was quite an eye opener - the Malayan rubber plantations, the evolution of the motor car, the devastating impact of the second world war on the innocent population, the Indian Independence army and especially the overland exodus of many thousands of expatriate Indians from Malaya through Siam and Burma to the relative safety of Calcutta in 1942.
I was hardly able to put this book down such was its grip. It is a magnificent historic and romantic tale and is worth at least 6 stars!
on July 2, 2003
Be prepared to learn about a part of history and an area of the world about which you know next to nothing. Ghosh has done a great deal of research to give his novel lush detail and historical accuracy, and then provides a rich family saga which delivers the fruits of his labors. More than that, he makes us think about the evils of empires, and the implications of personal decisions to serve masters other than those of our own making. He tells the story of displaced peoples, manipulated by the British not just physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. One final comment: The book is damn entertaining, and will stay with you long after you've read it. Instead of what most novels do, which is fade out after the first 100 or so pages, this book builds on itself and expands in richness as it draws closer to the present day. I highly recommend it as a work in which you can lose yourself and come away entertained as well as educated about a part of the world you may never have thought about.
on December 13, 2001
Ghosh's style of writing is very comforting to me; in a sense, I can relax into his fiction, knowing that the machinations will eventually be clarified. The easy rhythm of his prose is non-judgmental, while the central characters build their lives around their personal ideals and prejudices. Later, Ghosh uses this objective construct to smash the characters against eachother, creating fissures in lives that once seemed so purposful and simple. It is, in fact, these very diffuse constructs that create a multi-layered society, inter-dependent for survival, doomed to experience upheaval. Ghosh's genious is in lending each of his characters a particular believeability, each identity destined to conflict with others.
What seems a simple generational novel becomes the mirror through which the entire society is viewed. In THE GLASS PALACE, it is the British-occupied society, "the gentle masters" laid bare, until the iron fist of British rule is destroyed. Dealing with this British quest for world domination, I was reminded of Barry Unsworth's SACRED HUNGER, in Unsworth's case, the importation of Africans in slaveships. There is also the matter of exploitation, evidenced from the beginning of THE GLASS PALACE, when Rajkumar makes his fortune by trickery, importing slaves to work his rubber plantations in Burma.
Then there is the matter of the first Indian officers in Her Majesty's Service. These officers feel free from the constraints of tradition, only to discover that, as native Indians, they will never be considered the equals of British officers. Eventually, these Indian officers fight among themselves, sensing that "some are urging you on, while others are waiting for you to fail", similar to the practice of American slaveholders to use "overseers" to control slaves, giving them the power to inflict punishment, having certain privileges, but never freedom. In fact, when Indian soldiers are seen in Burma, the people comment, "There goes the army of slaves, marching off to catch more slaves for their masters". The book is full of such observations, leaving lingering questions well after the reader has turned the last page.
on January 25, 2003
I love historical fiction, and, in general, can be somewhat picky about what I read. The Glass Palace is one of the finest works of its kind I have ever read. From the first page, I was totally engaged. Ghosh is a master story teller. He has done a very impressive job of providing an exciting historical background of Burma, Malaysia, and India over many decades, interwoven with well developed characters across generations. I will read this book again someday. I very highly recommend this book.
on July 24, 2007
This book led my wife and I to travel to Burma. We even spent nearly 2 years living there and we lay it all to the curiosity kindled by "The Glass Palace". Furthermore it led us to reading 'The Hungry Tide' which led us on a trip to the Sudarbans near Kolkota. We have also read "In an Antique Land" which led us to the Malabar coast of India and which may yet get us to Egypt.
Read The Glass Palace....if you dare!
I like involved stories that move with the ebb and flow of history, all the time attempting to make sense of change as new generations emerge. “The Glass Palace” is one such richly woven, effectively researched epic about two families coming together in the most extraordinary of circumstances - the breakup of the British Empire in the Far East. In a long circuitous process their various members will form both lasting and transient relationships that will contribute to an overall big and more unsettled future. In this well-crafted, complex and riveting tale, the author traces the ups and downs of two unlikely characters: the poor Burmese cabdriver, Rajkumar, and a young royal servant, Dolly, who, for the next seventy years of tumultuous history, will go on an incredible journey together that the reader does not want to miss. Their paths first cross briefly during the violent overthrow of the monarchy in Rangoon, only to meet again later in India where fortunes have changed. Against traditional opposition, they marry and raise a family back in Burma where Rajkumar, by now a wealthy timber merchant, sees a lucrative opportunity to invest in the rubber trade. His plantation at Morningside will prosper from the outset because economic and geopolitical times are right. Little does he realize that he and Dolly are on the cusp of tremendous change happening within and without greater India, the legendary jewel in the imperial crown. Cataclysmic forces around them conspire to destabilize the good life they have struggled to build for themselves : the end of the aristocracy, the rise of a middle-class, the death of colonialism, the unleashing of nationalism and the fight for independence. Soon the good life will be gone as people in their circle of friends will be sucked into the great vortex of war, economic depression, pestilence, genocide, and famine. The glass palace - that majestic edifice of royal Burmese supremacy and security - will be quickly shattered as it is overrun by the barbarians of ruthless change and incivility. This couple’s children and their friends will soon follow their own counsels because they, too, have become susceptible to the forces of social, political and economic change. While much of this intricate story involves people desperately searching to reconnect with others from their past, time offers one consolation: those who survive get to see the next generation rise to meet a fresh set of challenges. For those who love historical fiction this is a must read.
on April 9, 2004
I love books written by good Indian authors. I say "good" because there are just far too many writers trying to jump on the "Indian bandwagon" these days. Sadly, most of them turn out only second or third-rate books. Amitv Ghosh isn't one of those writers. He's very accomplished, although I don't think THE GLASS PALACE is his very best work. It's certainly the one that most approaches "epic" status, though, and maybe that's part of its problem. THE GLASS PALACE seems to try to pack too much into one book and sometimes I think plot and characterization suffer because of that. Still, this is not a book to be dismissed. Not by a long shot.
Like V.S. Naipual, Amitav Ghosh writes about the Indian Diaspora (though Ghosh is more eipc). He seems interested in exploring just where displaced Indians "fit" in the world and, also like Naipaul, Ghosh's prose is lean and spare and unadorned. If you're looking for the fury and the pyrotechnics of Salman Rushdie, be assured you won't find them (or the magical realism) in the work of Amitav Ghosh.
I liked the story told in THE GLASS PALACE partly because it took place in Burma (now Myanmar) and Malaya, instead of in India. Myanmar, to me, is an exceptionally exotic place (what westerner can think of Mandalay and not think "exotic") and, I just read THE PIANO TUNER (also set in colonial Burma) which whetted my appetite for even more literature set in this exotic and dangerous, but extraordinarily beautiful, land.
THE GLASS PALACE begins as the British are invading Burma. In the marketplace, only a young boy named Rajkumar realizes what is happening. As the people in the marketplace take cover in the Glass Palace, Rajkumar gets his first glimpse of Dolly, a nursemaid to one of Burma's princesses, but it is a glimpse he will never forget. After Rajkumar grows into adulthood and makes a fortune in the teak trade, he travels to India to find Dolly, intending on marrying her.
The story Ghosh spins in THE GLASS PALACE is a very good one, but, at times, I felt there were far too many characters in the book, too many family members and too many friends. I know this book is an "epic," but still, the characterizations are a bit thin and events happen with too much speed, even for a novel. I really couldn't develop the empathy I wanted to develop with Ghosh's characters. We barely get to know someone before the scene changes.
Uma Roy, a friend of Dolly's who travels to New York and then returns to India, is another pivotal character in THE GLASS PALACE. I felt that Uma was a more complex character than either Dolly or Rajkumar but I didn't like the way Ghosh used her to expound on politics. This is simply a personal preference, though. In a historical epic such as THE GLASS PALACE there is no way Ghosh could have not written about politics and still retained credibility. What I didn't think was necessary, though, was Ghosh's mini-treatise on Burmese politics given at the end of the book. Now, that annoyed me more than it enlightened me. I didn't feel it had been woven into the narrative well enough. I don't think this novel, overall is seamless enough. Sometimes Ghosh gives us a grippingly good story and, at other times, he seems to wander or to slip into the cliché, instead. Even some of the prose, for the most part very good, would occasionally slip into the trite, e.g., "a cloud of disquiet."
THE GLASS PALACE is a sweeping book, spanning many, many years and sometimes I think maybe Ghosh just filled the book with "too much." Maybe a more intimate view, with fewer characters would have provided the same "look" but with richer, more meaningful characterizations. Still, THE GLASS PALACE is a wonderful achievement and certainly well worth anyone's time, especially for those who have an interest in the east or the period of history that this book covers.
Despite having a few problems with THE GLASS PALACE, I'm glad I read the book and I think it enriched my understanding of England's colonization of the east. I would definitely recommend THE GLASS PALACE to other readers, especially those who like historical novels and ones that are epic in scope. I couldn't decide whether to give THE GLASS PALACE three stars or four, but it had to have been such a huge undertaking and, to his everlasting credit, Ghosh stays far away from sentimentality. That, I think, earned him four very solid stars.
on April 7, 2004
The Glass Palace will probably disqualify as fiction has it not for a majority of characters that bear no resemblance to reality besides King Thebaw, Queen Supayalat and their four daughters, who were actually forced to exile. The book, which assiduously parallels to the history of colonial India and British invasion of Burma, depicts the country in a century of traumatic sub continental history through the independence in 1947, the assassination of General Aunt San shortly before his assuming of office after election, and up to the presence. The indelible characters, most of whom entwined and descended down the same family line of Rajkumar, seemed to float between boundaries of both geography (Burma, India, Malaya) and class; and transcended across time and generations, powerfully illuminated the painful history of Burma.
Amitav Ghosh conveys all the excruciating details of the characters in a an unusual air of equanimity, with a detachment, serenity and moral strength in the face of such overwhelming turmoil. At the same time, the complex and riveting book evokes the impact of the turmoil events that had thumped families and individuals. Set in Burma during the onset of British invasion in 1885, fortuity had brought 11-year-old Rajkumar to Mandalay. The sampan on which he worked as an errand boy had been in repair and forced him to seek employment in the city. Rajkumar, a brawny figure for a boy of his age and with a quick-witted mind, worked at a food stall in exchange for meals and a roof. He met Saya John and later under whose tutelage Rajkumar entered the timber business and made a considerable fortune. When the British soldiers forced the royal family out to exile, Rajkumar encountered Dolly, the youngest of Queen Supayalat's maids who took care of the Second Princess, and befriended her as the city's scum came surging berserk, looting in the Glass Palace.
Dolly was one of the last remaining members of the original Mandalay contingent when the royal family exiled to Ratnagiri, India. For 20 years Dolly had lived in India as she progressed into adulthood, overseeing the daily chores and negotiating with local workers in the royal household. But Rajkumar could neither forget her nor remove any vestige of her - he set out on a quest for a girl whom he had met in the midst of havoc some 20 years ago, when she was only 7. What follows is a twist-and-turn chronicle, salt-and-peppered with historical background of the relevant countries, of Rajkumar's life and his family. Through Ghosh's writing Bruma's destitution, ignorance, famine and despair was relived.
Reading "The Glass Palace" reminds me of "The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason, a book about an English piano tuner being summoned to repair a piano that belonged to a Surgeon-Major in the midst of Burmese jungle. Characters in "The Glass Palace" traveled the very same route to and from Burma as the piano tuner and described similar sceneries. The second half of Ghosh's book is replete with commentary-like prose on politics, history and warfare. An overlapping theme is the fact that the British had recruited Indian soldiers to conquer the Burmese. In a sense, the Indian soldiers, bearing no cause, were made to kill for the British Empire, fighting people (the Burmese) who really should be their friends. The Burmese vented out anger and resentment toward the Indians and, what was more, as subjects of the British Empire, the Indians were treated as enemy aliens by the Japanese. Amitav raises the ineluctable truth: that the Empire was no less guilty of racism, aggression and conquest than the Nazi's institutionalizing racism, violence and atrocities.
2004 (17) © MY
on January 27, 2004
Don't be surprised to see Amitav Ghosh's epic, elegiac novel serialized on "Masterpiece Theater" next year. It has all the right elements: historical sweep, operatic drama, and deeply realized characters moving in prominent family constellations. But though the work would find a comfortable spot in Alistair Cook's revered collection, perhpaps right next to "The Flame Trees of Thikka," in the loving hands of its author it soars beyond any hint of cliche. It's a unique and memorable novel that transcends its genre to challenge not only the intellect, but the imagination as well.
Beginning in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, "The Glass Palace" tells the story of many empires. The death of one gives rise to another throughout the book, always with life-altering results for the main characters and earth-shattering consequences for the world. At the outset we meet Rajkumar, an eleven year old ethnic Indian orphan caught up by sheer happenstance in the usurpation of the Burmese King Thebaw by his British "protectors". As the events unfold and sear themselves on Rajkumar's psyche, he gleans a sense of a world filled with danger for the ignorant and reward for the insightful. As the royal couple and their retinue, including Rajkumar's secret love Dolly, leave for exile in India, Rajkumar embarks on a journey filled with wild success, hidden passion, and a tragic finale made bearable only by the fact that he has survived and is not alone.
It's Rajkumar's adventures that set the stage for the rest of the novel, though he fades out as a main character about half-way through the book. His progeny and those of his friends and colleagues take center stage after Rajkumar has put in place a multi-million dollar teak conglomerate and rendered his family independent. But his struggles,and those of everyone in his orbit, continue through all the wrenching and violent disturbances of the twentieth century, culminating in the devastating Japanese attack on Burma in December 1941.
Empires rise up, consume, and recede over and over again in "The Glass Palace". For the most part this process spells death, displacement and heartache for those caught up in its vortex. But redemption here, as in many great works of fiction, comes through the bonds formed by people under the most hopeless of circumstances. It's then that real humanity shines through, and it's also then that "The Glass Palace" shows its true worth as a document of a tormented age.
on October 25, 2003
This lush novel spans a troubled 100 years in the history of Burma and India. Beginning with the overthrow of the last Burmese king as the British move into Burma, this novel tells the story of the Burmese royal family in exile; of Rajkumar, a young Burmese boy who through guts and risk-taking makes a fortune in the teak trade; of Dolly, the exquisitely beautiful maid in the royal household whom Rajkumar pursues and wins as his wife; of Uma, the wife of the British collector and custodian of the royal family. Roll on to pre-WWII India, where the next generation grapples with conflicting loyalties to Burma, India, the British, and other Asian countries, during the disaster of the war. Fast forward again to modern India and Burma, where Jaya, granddaughter of Rajkumar and Dolly, uncovers the story of the survivors of her family.
"The Glass Palace" attempts to do a lot, and does it well. The portrayal of India and the British Empire is colorful and fascinating, particularly as WWII unfolds. The British decision to allow Indians to become officers, a seemingly enlightened move, leads to unexpected consequences, as the men resent reporting to one of their own, and the officers begin to question why India is paying for the defense of the Empire. The deal between England and India regarding WWII, i.e., Independence in return for fighting the war, was in reality extremely complicated, as some Indians align themselves with the Japanese, others remain loyal to the British, and yet others try to stake out independent ground. The random violence and cruelty of war as it destroys the lives of innocent civilians is harshly drawn here, as are the consequences of colonization for India.
Given the scope, it is perhaps inevitable that something suffers, and in this case I found a number of the characters flat; we never know what Dolly really thinks about Rajkumar as he appears so many years after the fall of the Burmese royal family to claim her; several more minor characters, such as Arjun's friend Hardy, appear to be vehicles for presenting a political point of view rather than real people; and the multiple characters in this complex tale are easy to confuse. And the fast-forwarding that occurs in a few spots, most notably to get to modern Burma and Jaya's searching out of the reamining family members, is a bit jarring.
But all in all this ambitious author has done a good job in presenting this complex story, against a backdrop many Westerners are not familiar with, in a highly readable, detailed, and entertaining fashion.