Ghosh, Amitav The Glass Palace

ISBN 13: 9780007107216

The Glass Palace

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9780007107216: The Glass Palace

The acclaimed author of The Calcutta Chromosome and The Shadow Lines has burst out on to the big stage with a major saga on that hidden country, Burma.

Rajkumar is only another boy, helping on a market stall in the dusty square outside the royal palace, when the British force the Burmese King, Queen and all the Court into exile. He is rescued by the far-seeing Chinese merchant, and with him builds up a logging business in upper Burma. But haunted by his vision of the Royal Family, he journeys to the obscure town in India where they have been exiled.

The picture of the tension between the Burmese, the Indian and the British, is excellent. Among the great range of characters are one of the court ladies, Miss Dolly, whom he marries: and the redoubtable Jonakin, part of the British-educated Indian colony, who with her husband has been put in charge of the Burmese exiled court.

The story follows the fortunes – rubber estates in Malaya, businesses in Singapore, estates in Burma – which Rajkumar, with his Chinese, British and Burmese relations, friends and associates, builds up – from 1870 through the Second World War to the scattering of the extended family to New York and Thailand, London and Hong Kong in the post-war years.

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Review:

Beginning in 1885, with the British invasion of Mandalay and the capture of the Burmese king and queen, and encompassing over 100 years to modern-day India and Burma (Myanmar), Amitav Ghosh has created in The Glass Palace a monument to life in colonial central and Southeast Asia. The story follows three generations from three families, spreading its wings across the world, from Malaya to New York. Yet despite the epic scale, the gentle and intimate detail of the characters and their interwoven relationships removes any need for an understanding of this area of the world in geographical or historical terms. The map at the back of the book is useful for following the characters' travels as their fortunes and rulers (British, Japanese, military government) change, but it is the atmosphere and feel of the era and location that Ghosh captures astutely. Each city or border is not a mark on a map with political significance but a home, a memory and a reality.

With each generation the characters' lives and personalities contrast and intertwine according to the rise and fall of the countries'--and the world's--politics. Rajkumar, the Indian peasant who makes a fortune through teak and his wife Dolly, the breathtakingly beautiful maid of the Burmese royal family, contrast to Uma the Indian widow who becomes a champion for Indian independence after her liberating time in the USA and the Americanised Matthew who makes a life in his half-native Malaya as a rubber plantation owner, while Uma's Bengali nieces and nephew contrast to Rajkumar and Dolly's newly wealthy sons. Yet they all suffer in the Second World War, whether as a soldier, refugee or evacuee discriminated against because of their skin colour. Ghosh's focus on the war in Burma, from the viewpoint of Indian officers in the British army, who have been imbued through their regimental history to believe in their allegiance to "their" country (i.e. Britain and not India), reveals a side of both world wars that is rarely told. The struggle these British subjects experience, as to whether colonial or fascist masters are better, is not something that shaped the general European knowledge of the Second World War, where "good" and "evil" seemed much clearer.

However, The Glass Palace is not only about war; and the full circle it travels, from one glass palace in the lush and rich 19th-century Burma to another glass palace in repressed and impoverished Myanmar is, seemingly with ease from the lush and rich prose, satisfying and informative. It is a novel in which the characters will always go on living, and whose ideals will never die. --Olivia Dickinson

Review:

‘A distinctive voice, polished and profound’ TLS

'Ambitious, multigenerational, The Glass Palace is akin to a 19th century Russian novel…a rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland.' LA Times

'An absorbing story of a world in transition, brought to life through characters who love and suffer with equal intensity.’ JM Coetzee

'A Doctor Zhivago for the Far East.' The Independent

'Ghosh has established himself as one of the finest prose writers of his generation of Indians writing in English' Financial Times

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