Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh


"What are we?  We've learned to dance the tango and we know how to eat roast beef with a knife and fork.  The truth is that except for the colour of our skin, most people in India wouldn't even recognise us as Indians.  When we joined up we didn't have India on our minds; we wanted to be sahibs and that's what we've become."

Set in Burma, Malaya and India during the dying days of the British Empire, The Glass Palace is a multi-generational epic spanning a hundred years and involving several families.  Rajmakur is an Indian orphan from a poor family when he arrives in Burma during the British Invasion of 1885.  Able to get a glimpse inside the infamous Glass Palace during the chaos, he falls in love with Dolly, attendant to a Princess.  As Burma changes and the world draws closer to World War Two, Rajmakur's fortunes rise and fall with that of the Empire.  Decades later, Indian soldier Arjun is forced to face some difficult questions on the nature of identity and what a free India would mean.

I'm glad I finally took The Glass Palace off my shelf and read it.  I've owned it for at least ten years, and it was on the list of twelve books I've challenged myself to read in 2014.  I think I was worried it would be overly literary, or pretentious, or stuffy, but it didn't feel like that at all.  The writing was surprisingly smooth and although the book is 500+ pages, it didn't feel long.  The constant changing of the setting gave events a nice pace and Ghosh avoids dwelling for too long on any one character.  I loved reading about Burma in the days of royalty and the sumptuous hall of mirrors in the Glass Palace, as this is something I knew nothing about before starting the book.  Ghosh has a way with description and Burma really came alive for me.

I think if I hadn't read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth already, The Glass Palace would probably have become a favourite.  But a lot of the themes and aims are similar and in my opinion, Seth just does a multi-family epic so much better.  Ghosh introduces a lot of characters with a lot of links between them, and sometimes it was hard to keep track of who knew who, and how they knew each other.  An appendix with a family tree would have been ideal.  Also, sometimes twenty years or more were skipped through very quickly in the space of a chapter or so, and this felt a bit jarring.

The real strength of the book was in the two characters of Rajkumar and Arjun.  Rajkumar has a bit of a rags to riches story but Ghosh is careful not to idealise him too much.  As a reader you root for him in the initial sections of the story, but as he starts to earn many through whatever means possible, including exploitation of others, Ghosh makes you question how you really feel about him.  And Arjun, an Indian officer in the British army, is a great vehicle for Ghosh to explore identity and the complex realities of how the British related to India.  Arjun doesn't have too much of a plot, but I like how nuanced Ghosh wrote his situation, how torn he was between what he knew and what he hoped for.

On the whole, The Glass Palace is a well written epic with some important themes, that remains easy to read and enjoy.  I'm glad I read it, even if I didn't love it quite as much as I loved A Suitable Boy.

Source: Personal Copy
First Published: 2000
Edition Read: Harper Collins, 2001
Score: 4 out of 5

TBR 2014: Book 1/12

19 comments:

  1. I love multigenerational epics and should probably read this or A Suitable Boy. But I keep adding books to my pile at a much faster rate than I can read them. Your reviews always make me want to read the books!

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    1. Read A Suitable Boy, you won't regret it!

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  2. It's been years since I read this book--thte year it was published, I think? So I don't have great recall of it, other than really liking it and thinking that this Amitav Ghosh fellow was worth watching. Good for you for knocking off one of your TBR books!

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    1. At least you read it - I just bought it when it came out and then ignored it for over 10 years!

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  3. I too read this book and the Seth book quite a while back. I enjoyed them both in differing ways though the length of the Suitable Boy was tough to handle!

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    1. I read Suitable Boy as a group read spread over three months, so the length didn't feel too intimidating that way. Which one did you prefer?

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  4. I know that I've read this, but I really can't remember the story at all. I've got 12 books from my TBR shelf too - I haven't managed to get to my first one yet. A Suitable Boy has been on my TBR list for years, I really must read it as I hear such great things about it.

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    1. Ooh, I'd love to see which 12 books are on your TBR, and if they are similar to mine. A Suitable Boy is a time investment, but well worth it.

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  5. I'm glad you read this and liked it. It has been such a long time since I read it that i can't really remember it, other than I know I liked it.

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    1. I get like that with books too, it's one of the main reasons I end up rereading some of them.

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  6. Congrats on tackling one of your books you needed a push to read! I've never read any books set in Burma, so I bet this would be really interesting :)

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    1. 1 down, 11 to go!
      The stuff about Burma was fascinating, and most of it was new to me.

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  7. This looks fantastic. The setting/time period is very different from most of what I read. Definitely would like to give this one a try :)

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    1. It was different for me to, I loved reading about Burma.

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  8. I got rid of my copy in my last big clear out. I think I was like you, thinking it might be a bit stuffy for some reason. At least someone at book group has it now and will be able to read it instead :)

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    1. I had debated getting rid of it in a few clear outs, but I'm glad I kept it now, if only for the satisfaction of having finally read a book I've owned for so long!

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  9. I will have to read this one some time. I'm a little disappointed about some aspects of this book, but it seems to be worth a read.

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    1. It was definitely worth reading, hopefully you will enjoy it as well.

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  10. I am now reading Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry, on audiobook. He does a really great family drama as well, though I think his style is distinct enough from Vikram Seth's that you would not compare the two. It's beautifully written and just has a lot of wonderful small scenes about a family trying to make ends meet.

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