The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

Glass PalaceThree families. Three countries. More than 100 years. In The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh takes us on a journey across cultures and generations, navigating some significant milestones in history but never losing sight of the people who loved, laughed and cried through political upheaval, invasion and war.

It’s the human dimension that grabs our attention as the book opens.  Rajkumar, a poor orphaned Burmese boy, finds himself in the royal palace on the day in 1885 when British soldiers storm the gates and forcibly evict the royal household. He befriends Dolly, one of the young women in the queen’s entourage and guides her to safety. She stays in his mind and his heart throughout the following years as he slowly builds a business in wood logging. When his position is secure as the head of teak trading empire,  he goes in search of her in her new home with the exiled royals in India . The remainder of the book traces their life together in Burma, India and Malaysia, their ambitions and disappointments and the fluctuating fortunes of their children and grand-children.

Clearly this is a family saga on a grand scale. Its settings range from the rubber plantations of Malaysia, to the Burmese teak forests and the bustling cityscape of Rangoon and Singapore. But it’s also a history of a tumultuous period in history in south east Asia, covering the rise and fall of the British Empire in the region, the second world war and India’s struggle for independence.  One of the themes of the novel looks at the way indigenous populations fight against oppression from an alien nation. In case readers needed reminding that the fight for liberty and freedom is still an issue today as it was in the nineteenth century, the novel ends with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi on the lawn of her home where she was under house arrest.

Little wonder that Ghosh took five years to research and write The Glass Palace.

I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. (source: http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace_r.html)

It’s an impressive achievement. For me the earliest part of the novel was the most interesting, largely because of the strength of Ghosh’s characterisation. We see this not just in his principal characters Dolly and Rajkumar but in some of the smaller players, I loved the image of the exiled King Thebaw who with no kingdom to rule, resorts to supervising the movement of boats across the bay below his deteriorating palace in Ratnagiri. Later chapters, where the focus switches to the second, and then third generation, were less engaging. By then I was losing track of who was who as the parallel narratives of various children and grandchildren and friends got more and more tangled in my head. By the time we got to World War 2 and the Japanese invasion it felt as if the human dimension was subsumed in favour of details about the historical events.

I’m still glad I read it the novel however. It is complex at times and a few of the characters seemed too lightly sketched but Ghosh had a such a masterful ability to conjure up a culture in rich and beautiful detail that I forgave him for those lapses.  He’s an author I certainly want to read again, most likely Sea of Poppies, which has come highly recommended by Alex at Thinking in Fragments. It’s set against a background of China’s opium wars in the nineteenth century; could be a perfect read for my next trip to that part of the world.

EndNote: There is a short extract from The Glass Palace available on line at http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace.html

 

 

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on January 17, 2015, in Book Reviews, Indian authors, world literature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. I’ve read Sea of Poppies and really liked it. I keep meaning to read the second but but haven’t managed it yet and now I think the third book is coming out soon. I might have to add this one to the list too.

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  2. I cant remember if I’ve read this book or not. Sounds like it’s the type I would like and I’m sure that it’s (been) on my shelf somewhere – *but have I read it*? hmmmmm

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    • thats the issue isn’t it the more you read? I used to have that problem when I was reading crime fiction – I’d get half way through the book and then realise I’d already read it (though still couldn’t remember who had done the crime)

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  3. Oh, I was a bit curious about this book…hmmm, maybe I’ll wait a while before reading it.

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  4. Great review! I’m a big fan of Ghosh. You should definitely try ‘Sea of Poppies’… it has a bit of a slow start, but then really picks up and sweeps the reader along. I liked its sequel too, ‘River of Smoke’, though I liked Sea of Poppies better. Waiting on the final book of the trilogy now… it’s coming this summer!

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  5. I think Ghosh will deservedly be awarded the Nobel one day, he’s magnificent. I read a great deal, much fades from my memory, but this novel, The Glass Palace doesn’t leave ever me. It’s scope so wide/grand and truth telling so ultimately optimistic. His writing made me get out my atlas and look closely at Malaysia. I suppose it’s also because I learnt so much I value it.

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    • One of the comments I heard about him is that he does extensive research to ensure his novels are rounded on fact but that he also gets to the essence of the places he choses for locations. Maybe that’s why you were so interested in learning more about Malaysia?

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  6. I usually like these kinds of story but the plus seems to be its historical fiction aspect concerning Burma. This one will have to be moved up to acquire and read soon. Thanks for reminding me that I need to read Ghosh! 🙂

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  7. This book received quite a bit of buzz. Not my taste–although I don’t mind epics occasionally.

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    • I’m trying to think what other books I’ve ready that similarly spanned generations. Pillars of the earth came to mind (Ken Follett) which similarly started really well with the idea of building Salisbury cathedral but half way through got tiresome. Edward Rutherford ‘s Salem brought a similar reaction.

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  8. As a scholar of South Asia, I really appreciate the research Ghosh puts into his books. That being said, I couldn’t finish Sea of Poppies, which is really too bad since it was a trilogy i was so looking forward to. I like this one though, and have assigned it as reading my a course i taught on South Asian history (along with A Fine Balance).

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  9. I read this years ago and remember it fondly, I have read other Ghosh novels though not Sea Poppies.

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  10. This sounds like something I would really enjoy reading. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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  11. Wow this does sound like a grand scale family saga, I love the concept although it sounds as though the book went in a different direction towards the end. Great review!

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