Ryan's Reviews > The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
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Oct 29, 2011

it was amazing
Read from October 29 to November 13, 2011

What a fantastic book, and a fantastic surprise. I had never heard of this book before a recommendation, and it carried me away with everything I love about great books: a historical backdrop; beautiful, flowing prose; examination of lesser known (at least to myself) cultures; focus on life, love, death, struggle, defeat, and overcoming defeat; and a wide-sweeping scope, spanning 100 years and three generations of family members, friends, relatives, all connecting the huge themes of the macro with the micro.

It’s hard to say what the book is really “about,” other than three generations of Indian Burmese and their pursuits, individual against the backdrop of history. At times it’s “about” different things – British colonization, rags to riches success, the timber trade in the jungle with elephants, love at first sight, the mindless obedience of the army (as well as “normal” peoples…), rubber plantations, WWI, WWII, family relationships and struggles, and death. Each of these themes could merit enough writing and analysis to constitute an entire review itself. Though I don’t have time to go into each, I will suffice to say that I was amazed to see how seamless Ghosh was able to combine these, slipping the “love and relationship” in with the rubber plantation, the portrayal of colonization with A) the success of our protagonist and B) the inclusion of the love affairs, and a section of 50-75 pages regarding the teat tree business with as luscious prose as I have seen. Wherever Ghosh set his scenes, I felt like I was there, capturing every nuance of the street, the jungle, the fight. His characters are many, and though it can get a bit tough to follow the shifting generations (not to mention the Asian names; but I thought Ghosh did well enough leading his reader along, not reverting to a Faulkner style of leaning to heavy on pronouns) I feel like each of these characters will be sticking with me for a while. The book bogs down a bit in the middle as we experience this shift, but within 50 pages the story is back up and running, and characters that I felt sad to move away from and new characters I was not attached to at first soon became a soulful part of the story to magnify that of the earlier characters, not move away from them. And I would literally cry out when a character, not really cared for initially, would befall defeat.

I’m reminded a lot of Middlesex with this book. I feel that anyone who is a fan of this style of historical fiction with multi-generational family members (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Middlesex, East of Eden, Atonement, maybe? Corrections, maybe?) would find this quite equitable. I loved the way that it brought to life conditions in this part of the world that I really knew nothing about. It is fiction, and the focus is on the characters, but it illustrates the mindset, the societal conditions of the British Occupation of Burma, the domination and submission between The Empire and Indians, the Japanese in WWII beyond Pearl Harbor, the rise of the military junta up to near-present day with the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. If anything, I would critique that this book is not “too long” or “epic” in form, but that it’s not epic or long enough to capture every bite it tries to chew. It’s amazing that all this scope, all these characters, all this history is contained within 474 pages. I didn’t want it to end. I would be even happier with another 100 or 200 pages, amplifying the modern junta, giving the character of Jaya more than 50 pages, giving the protagonist’s son Dinu 100 pages to show us his post WWII struggles rather than summing them up in 5-10 pages to another character as some sort of epilogue, portraying more of the Indiana Independence after the splintering of the Army in WWII.

Though I was left wanting more, I think it’s fair to say that this book deserves a place on my list of favorites. My debate now is whether to keep plowing ahead with my list of future reads or to take a detour into more of Ghosh’s oeuvre, hoping – like Franzen, Steinbeck, among others – that he’ll continue to amaze in new and interesting ways. This book had it all, everything I love about true literature.
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