The 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recounts Ghosh, "I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of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.
Publishers Weekly - 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--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. (Feb. 6) Forecast: Novels by Indian authors continue to surge in popularity here, and this title not only ranks among the best but differs from the pack for its setting of Burma rather than India. Backed by a 6-city author tour, advance blurbs from Peter Mathiessen and the British reviews of the novel, plus a Fiction at Random promotion, this book should be read widely and with enthusiasm stateside. Rights have been sold in Germany, the U.K., France, Denmark, Holland, Italy, Spain, India and Latin America. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
In an industry not known for risk-taking, the publisher is to be congratulated for offering Ghosh (The Calcutta Chromosome) a contract on his as-yet-unwritten novel. Set primarily in Burma, Malaya, and India, this work spans from 1885, when the British sent the King of Burma into exile, to the present. While it does offer brief glimpses into the history of the region, it is more the tale of a family and how historical events influenced real lives. As a young boy, Rajkumar, an Indian temporarily stranded in Mandalay, finds himself caught up in the British invasion that led to the exile of Burma's last king. In the chaos, he spies Dolly, a household maid in the royal palace, for whom he develops a consuming passion and whom years later he tracks down in India and marries. As their family grows and their lives intersect with others, the tangled web of local and international politics is brought to bear, changing lives as well as nations. Ghosh ranges from the condescension of the British colonialists to the repression of the current Myanmar (Burmese) regime in a style that suggests E.M. Forster as well as James Michener. Highly recommended, especially for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1//00.]--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“An absorbing story of a world in transition, brought to life through characters who love and suffer with equal intensity.”
—J. M. Coetzee
“There is no denying Ghosh’s command of culture and history....[He] proves a writer of supreme skill and intelligence.”
—The Atlantic Monthly
“I will never forget the young and old Rajkumar, Dolly, the Princesses, the forests of teak, the wealth that made families and wars. A wonderful novel. An incredible story.”
“A rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland— a literary territory that is as resonant now, in our globalized culture, as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A novelist of dazzling ingenuity.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
Read an Excerpt
There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what that sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort. His name was Rajkumar and he was an Indian, a boy of eleven — not an authority to be relied upon.
The noise was unfamiliar and unsettling, a distant booming followed by low, stuttering growls. At times it was like the snapping of dry twigs, sudden and unexpected. And then, abruptly, it would change to a deep rumble, shaking the food-stall and rattling its steaming pot of soup. The stall had only two benches, and they were both packed with people, sitting pressed up against each other. It was cold, the start of central Burma's brief but chilly winter, and the sun had not risen high enough yet to burn off the damp mist that had drifted in at dawn from the river. When the first booms reached the stall there was a silence, followed by a flurry of questions and whispered answers. People looked around in bewilderment: What is it? Ba le? What can it be? And then Rajkumar's sharp, excited voice cut through the buzz of speculation. "English cannon," he said in his fluent but heavily accented Burmese. "They're shooting somewhere up the river. Heading in this direction."
Frowns appeared on some customers' faces as they noted that it was the serving-boy who had spoken and that he was a kalaa from across the sea — an Indian, with teeth as white as his eyes and skin the color of polished hardwood. He was standing in the center of the stall, holding a pile of chipped ceramic bowls. He was grinning a little sheepishly, as though embarrassed to parade his precocious knowingness.
His name meant Prince, but he was anything but princely in appearance, with his oil-splashed vest, his untidily knotted longyi and his bare feet with their thick slippers of callused skin. When people asked how old he was he said fifteen, or sometimes eighteen or nineteen, for it gave him a sense of strength and power to be able to exaggerate so wildly, to pass himself off as grown and strong, in body and judgment, when he was, in fact, not much more than a child. But he could have said he was twenty and people would still have believed him, for he was a big, burly boy, taller and broader in the shoulder than many men. And because he was very dark it was hard to tell that his chin was as smooth as the palms of his hands, innocent of all but the faintest trace of fuzz.
It was chance alone that was responsible for Rajkumar's presence in Mandalay that November morning. His boat — the sampan on which he worked as a helper and errand-boy — had been found to need repairs after sailing up the Irrawaddy from the Bay of Bengal. The boatowner had taken fright on being told that the work might take as long as a month, possibly even longer. He couldn't afford to feed his crew that long, he'd decided: some of them would have to find other jobs. Rajkumar was told to walk to the city, a couple of miles inland. At a bazaar, opposite the west wall of the fort, he was to ask for a woman called Ma Cho. She was half-Indian and she ran a small food-stall; she might have some work for him.
And so it happened that at the age of eleven, walking into the city of Mandalay, Rajkumar saw, for the first time, a straight road. By the sides of the road there were bamboo-walled shacks and palm-thatched shanties, pats of dung and piles of refuse. But the straight course of the road's journey was unsmudged by the clutter that flanked it: it was like a causeway cutting across a choppy sea. Its lines led the eye right through the city, past the bright red walls of the fort to the distant pagodas of Mandalay Hill, shining like a string of white bells upon the slope.
For his age, Rajkumar was well travelled. The boat he worked on was a coastal craft that generally kept to open waters, plying the long length of shore that joined Burma to Bengal. Rajkumar had been to Chittagong and Bassein and any number of towns and villages in between. But in all his travels he had never come across thoroughfares like those in Mandalay. He was accustomed to lanes and alleys that curled endlessly around themselves so that you could never see beyond the next curve. Here was something new: a road that followed a straight, unvarying course, bringing the horizon right into the middle of habitation.
When the fort's full immensity revealed itself, Rajkumar came to a halt in the middle of the road. The citadel was a miracle to behold, with its mile-long walls and its immense moat. The crenellated ramparts were almost three storeys high, but of a soaring lightness, red in color, and topped by ornamented gateways with seven-tiered roofs. Long straight roads radiated outwards from the walls, forming a neat geometrical grid. So intriguing was the ordered pattern of these streets that Rajkumar wandered far afield, exploring. It was almost dark by the time he remembered why he'd been sent to the city. He made his way back to the fort's western wall and asked for Ma Cho.
"She has a stall where she sells food — baya-gyaw and other things. She's half Indian."
"Ah, Ma Cho." It made sense that this ragged-looking Indian boy was looking for Ma Cho: she often had Indian strays working at her stall. "There she is, the thin one."
Ma Cho was small and harried-looking, with spirals of wiry hair hanging over her forehead, like a fringed awning. She was in her mid-thirties, more Burmese than Indian in appearance. She was busy frying vegetables, squinting at the smoking oil from the shelter of an upthrust arm. She glared at Rajkumar suspiciously. "What do you want?"
He had just begun to explain about the boat and the repairs and wanting a job for a few weeks when she interrupted him. She began to shout at the top of her voice, with her eyes closed: "What do you think — I have jobs under my armpits, to pluck out and hand to you? Last week a boy ran away with two of my pots. Who's to tell me you won't do the same?"And so on.
Rajkumar understood that this outburst was not aimed directly at him: that it had more to do with the dust, the splattering oil, and the price of vegetables than with his own presence or with anything he had said. He lowered his eyes and stood there stoically, kicking the dust until she was done.
She paused, panting, and looked him over. "Who are your parents?" she said at last, wiping her streaming forehead on the sleeve of her sweat-stained aingyi.
"I don't have any. They died."