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The Glass Palace Hardcover – 3 Jul 2000
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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
‘A tantalising meditation… richly complex and satisfying’
‘A distinctive voice, polished and profound’
Top customer reviews
There are excellent descriptions of life in Mandalay at the beginning of the last century, of the rubber plantations in Malaya and teak forests in Burma.
Amitav Ghosh explores the themes of colonialism, imperialism, loyalty and family ties. He really brings home the chaos of the wartime - when people had no idea what was going, communications were non-existent and yet decisions about which side to be on had still to be taken.
An impressive novel and a lovely read.
I do have a (small) criticism of the number of non-English words that were used with no explanation. Some of these could be guessed from the context but I have to confess that others just left me perplexed!