For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Glass Palace

Posted on: April 24, 2010

The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh, Random House, 2000, 486 pp.

This novel had everything a good epic needs—fascinating characters, intertwined families followed across generations, travel across nations and regions, fortunes made and lost, war and the tragedy of war, love and passion, soldiers and civilians, rich and poor, politics, history and great storytelling. I enjoyed every minute of it.

The novel begins in 1885 in Burma, where we meet two orphaned children—Rajkumar, who is poor and alone and making his way in the world, and Dolly, who is an adopted by the queen of Burma to be a servant. The action begins when the British invade Burma and send the Royal Family into exile in India. Rajkumar vows to find Dolly, and 20 years later he does. They marry, and their extended circle of friends and family form the main characters of the novel.

The story itself takes place in what was then Malaya, Burma and India, and now comprises India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Thailand. The characters find themselves a part of history, from the British conquests and the teak trade, to the rubber plantations and indenture/slavery of Indian peasants, to the Indian Independence movement and the Japanese invasion in the Second World War. I know very little about the history of southeast Asia, so I was fascinated to learn about this history while I was reading the novel.

Ghosh’s characters were particularly interesting and unique, because all of the main characters had a tangled, unusual history of racial, ethnic and national identity. Rajkumar is Indian, but lived primarily in Burma. Dolly was Burmese, but the exile took her to India. Saya John, a mentor/parent to Rajkumar, is ethnically Chinese, but raised in a Catholic orphanage with a European education. In some circumstances, it is only their separation from their home country that allows them to overcome the prejudices of colonialism and caste to make their successful way in the world.

The novel itself was so rich, so dense, so full and complete that it is difficult to write about it in great detail. All I can say is, read it!

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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