Monday, February 19, 2007

Book Review: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

I just finished Ghosh's amazing book: The Glass Palace. I spent all day and night Saturday until I could finally finish the last few hundred pages. It is a saga fit for the big screen, and perhaps one day, it will wind up there. I had little idea what World War II looked like from Burma, and Malaysia's standpoint.

This book provides an intimate portrait of life during this historic time, weaving the lives of many families spanning multiple generations; Ghosh provides lush descriptions of the palaces of the Burmese monarchy, the jungles of Burma and Malaysia, and many urban locales in India, Burma, Malaysia, and other places. I had only a foggy idea so many Indians were involved in the conquering of Burma by the Brits, and the subsequent occupation and economic construction to follow. My own grandfather went to Burma to strike it rich back in the 40s. After reading this book I'm intrigued to find out more about my grandfather's experiences there. I was also fascinated by Ghosh's portrait of the confused state of mind of the Indian soldiers forced to fight on behalf of their own colonizers; they were often sympathetic to the Japanese conquests; one group jumps sides to fight against the British alongside the Japanese. I had read about this in Kushwant Singh's Sikh History series, but Ghosh's portrayal really brought it to life for me. In any event, here's a summary of the book from Publisher's Weekly:

Ghosh's epic novel of Burma and Malaya over a span of 115 years is the kind of "sweep of history" that readers can appreciate and even love despite its demands. There is almost too much here for one book, as over the years the lives and deaths of principal characters go flying by. Yet Ghosh (The Calcutta Chromosome; Shadow Lines) is a beguiling and endlessly resourceful storyteller, and he boasts one of the most arresting openings in recent fiction: in the marketplace of Mandalay, only the 11-year-old Indian boy Rajkumar recognizes the booming sounds beyond the curve of the river as English cannon fire. The year is 1885, and the British have used a trade dispute to justify the invasion and seizure of Burma's capital. As a crowd of looters pours into the fabled Glass Palace, the dazzling throne room of the nine-roofed golden spire that was the great hti of Burma's kings, Rajkumar catches sight of Dolly, then only 10, nursemaid to the Second Princess. Rajkumar carries the memory of their brief meeting through the years to come, while he rises to fame and riches in the teak trade and Dolly travels into exile to India with King Thebaw, Burma's last king; Queen Supayalat; and their three daughters. The story of the exiled king and his family in Ratnagiri, a sleepy port town south of Bombay, is worth a novel in itself, and the first two of the story's seven parts, which relate that history and Rajkumar's rise to wealth in Burma's teak forests, are marvelously told. Inspired by tales handed down to him by his father and uncle, Ghosh vividly brings to life the history of Burma and Malaya over a century of momentous change in this teeming, multigenerational saga.

All in all, I give this book 4 out of 4 stars. If you are interested, you can purchase the book at Amazon by clicking HERE


globulationist said...

Dear reader,
I'm from Burma. I also finished the book two weeks ago.Yes, I agree with you.You might be surprised it is sold at one bookstore here. I like the last pages most.
However,what we like might be the content since we can connect well wiht it.It doesn't seem natural for the characters to meet and disappear like that, but he can do in such a big context.
I wonder why the book has such appeal to the wide audience though the theme is not very popular; anti colonial theme.I think maybe because the writer is an Indian who wrote about Burma.It might provoke curosity. I wonder why you chose it.
I also noticed that Amitav is better in portraying the women's characters.It's liked by JM Coetzee whose books sound feminine.His "boyhood" says that he hated his father.
Anyway I agree with you.

deep said...

A friend had dropped off a stack of books for my wife and I to read. This was one of them. I'm also always interested in historic novels, especially those involving India in some capacity. I also have always wondered about Burma, as it is a nation we hear very little about in the west, and I do have some personal family links there. I think the wide appeal is because it is simply a well told story. Understanding how the British conquered so many lands, and the problems they encountered, can be helpful in understanding some modern day conflicts.

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