Amitav Ghosh creates a compelling multi-generational narrative in his historical fiction, The Glass Palace. As the book opens, Rajkumar is an 11-year-old boy from India stranded in Mandalay, Burma (now Myanmar). He finds himself in King Thibaw’s Glass Palace in 1885 as the British invade the city. There Rajkumar briefly meets Dolly, one of the princess’s attendants. He is immediately entranced. As the novel follows these two youngsters into adulthood and old age, Ghosh takes readers to several Asian countries.
The British exile King Thibaw and his entourage to Ratnagiri, near Goa, India. It’s there that Dolly grows into young adulthood. She becomes fast friends with Uma, an Indian whose husband is District Collector working within the British government. Uma and Dolly follow different paths, but their friendship remains through many decades.
Meanwhile, Rajkumar works with an older, successful immigrant, named Saya John, in the teak trade. The younger man translates hard scrabble street smarts and these new experiences into a business of his own.
Weaving the stories of these four people and their families together, The Glass Palace journeys through India, Burma, and Malaya. It tells the story of colonial oppression and rebellion through nearly 100 years of history. If it’s not the British invading, it’s the Japanese. And the indigenous people of each country also have difficulty accepting and connecting comfortably with immigrants from nearby countries. No one is completely settled and at home, even in places they live for decades.
This is sweeping historical fiction in fascinating parts of Asia, across many turbulent decades. Ghosh develops his characters with nuance and complexity. And he never relies on stereotypes or tropes as he introduces each successive generation.
The economic and social aspects of each decade are complicated. But Ghosh keeps everything moving forward with energy and clarity. He tells the political parts of the story in his characters’ experiences, but never lectures or rambles. And it’s especially relevant considering events in Myanmar unfolding right now.
Dolly, Rajkumar, Uma and Saya John are each flawed, eminently human characters. Their needs and desires at times intersect, while at others they painfully diverge. Watching their lives unfurl under the skill of the author was a pleasure.
I only read my first Ghosh last year, his 2019 novel Gun Island. I enjoyed both books so much that I plan to read another later this year. He’s fast becoming one of my favorite authors because of how he connects deep historic and political ideas with complex characters.
If you like historical fiction with plenty of vital characters and interesting locations, all of them well-executed, then I encourage you to give The Glass Palace a try.
Pair with Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. I chose this pair because Ghosh’s story focuses on people of relative privilege. On the other hand, Boo’s book reaches into the ‘undercity’ for a very different reality.