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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
When you heave your final sigh and turn the last page of Amitav Ghosh's new novel, The Glass Palace, you feel as if you've travelled for 100 years on foot, through the most distant and lush lands on the globe. The Glass Palace is as close as a person tucked cozily into an armchair on a rainy day can get to the rubber plantations of Malaysia, the teak forests of Burma, and the bustling city streets of Rangoon and Singapore, bearing witness to the demise of the Burmese monarchy and the rise and fall of the British empire.
A stately and vibrantly detailed family saga set in south-central Asia against the tumultuous backdrop of the 20th century, The Glass Palace is the story of Rajkumar, an Indian shop boy orphaned in Mandalay, who, on the eve of the 1885 British invasion, falls in love with Dolly, a beautiful handmaiden to the Queen of Burma. The conquering British send Burma's King Thebaw and his loyal court, including the young handmaiden, into exile in remote India. Rajkumar, left behind in Burma, is adept at working the new colonial system, and he manages to build a thriving lumber business in the growing teak trade.
Elegantly dressed in English clothes, Rajkumar sets off to India to find Dolly, the only woman he has ever loved. The long years in exile have devastated the royal family, leaving Dolly as their only servant. Through the wiles of the colonial administrator's wife, Uma Dey, Rajkumar wins an audience with Dolly and convinces her to return to Burma and marry him. She agrees, and shortly after her departure everything falls apart. The royal family is embroiled in scandal, the administrator commits suicide, and Uma, grieving more over the absence of her dear friend Dolly than over her husband's death, eschews the traditional life of an Indian widow and goes abroad, where she becomes a revered leader of India's burgeoning independence movement. And this is only the beginning. The story of Uma, Dolly, Rajkumar and their children, nieces, and nephews -- and their children's children, nieces, and nephews -- takes us from the rubber boom of the industrial age to the front lines of World War II, from India's struggle for independence to Burma's fall and its transformation into Myanmar under a military dictatorship.
"In the five years it took me to write The Glass Palace," recounts Ghosh, "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." Inspired by the legends of his own ancestry, Ghosh's massive research makes for a wealth of detail. The Glass Palace is at once a gargantuan history, a family saga, and an adventure story. It is so richly and compassionately rendered you come to feel you are somehow part of its vast extended family whose story finds its humble origins in two orphans standing innocently on the threshold of the 20th century.
Minna Proctor is a writer and translator. She lives in New York.