Book Review: The Glass Palace

A book of such epic proportions is one that is rarely executed, which is why this tremendous task took Amitav Ghosh 5 years to complete. The Glass Palace is a novel that follows the transformation of a nation from Burma to Myanmar. It follows the lives of two characters and their descendants as they navigate their way through monarchy, imperialism, war and independence. The novel, although historical in some respects, is nothing but pure fiction, with the writer intertwining the lives of those individuals to the events of the country’s transformation, as well as its relationship with neighbouring countries; India and Malaysia.

Ghosh himself stated that “one can examine the truths of individuals in history more completely in fiction than one can in history”. This is true as most history is taught from the perspectives of kings, queens and important men. They are rarely seen from the eyes of an individual, only from the collective as one voice. Most common men and women did not have the means of telling their stories, especially in the pre-20th century where reading and writing was a luxury reserved only for the rich and wealthy. Ghosh’s ability to explore the lives of individuals against the epic backdrops of historical events is one that I enjoyed throughout the novel. However, his attempt to take the reader from the 1880s Burma, through India, USA, Malaysia and back to Myanmar in the 1980s was far too ambitious. The novel starts with the Imperialist British army deposing of the Burmese king, through to his exile up until the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi. Although the earlier chapters are well researched and written, by the end of the novel, the story becomes less believable, one example of this being a character’s sudden ability to be a professional marksman with no prior experience of a firearm. The reader begins to lose interest in the characters mid-way through the novel as there are far too many lives and stories to follow, making it difficult for one to connect or identify with an individual character.

On the other hand, one must praise Ghosh’s ability to create characters that remind you of people you know, people who make mistakes, forget their past, redefine who they are and fight for what they want. The novel, although unrealistic at times, rings true to its motif of The Glass Palace, as we all live in the glass palace of our everyday lives, and it takes but one stone for the glass to shatter where we have no choice but to rebuild another.

One character whose glass palace was shattered by political consciousness is Arjun. Throughout the Second World War, Arjun begins to question the role of the Indian soldiers in the British Army. However, in the earlier chapters Arjun stayed firm in his belief that his role is to serve the Empire in order to bring equality to other nations, despite the inequalities he himself faced in British-owned India as an Indian man. In Ghosh’s effort to voice his personal opinions on the Empire, Arjun’s loyalty to the Empire is overthrown in an attempt to gain independence not only for India but for himself. One of Arjun’s most eloquent self-reflection echoes Ghosh himself.

“Was this how a mutiny was sparked? In a moment of heedlessness, so that one became a stranger to the person one had been a moment before? Or was it the other way around? That this was when one recognized the stranger that one had always been to oneself; that all one’s loyalties and beliefs had been misplaced?”

Arjun’s attempt to find himself, despite only having found purpose for his life through the British Army, is a battle that leads him to decisions that some readers find hard to sympathise with. Arjun not only loses himself but his most trusted and loyal companion.

To conclude, I would rate this book a 3.9 out of 5 stars, although some chapters were superbly written, the writer’s insistent on providing an ending to every character resulted in the closing chapters seeming rushed and lacking in the thoughtfulness of the opening chapters. Nonetheless, this is a book that I would recommend, if not for the story itself but for the historical context.

Thank you for reading.

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