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Merle

Merle

The Glass Palace - Amitav Ghosh What the blurb led me to expect: A book about Burma in the late 19th century, starring a boy/young man named Rajkumar.

What the book actually is: An epic family saga beginning in 1885 and ending in 1996, set in Burma/Myanmar, India, and Malaysia, starring a whole bunch of people.

Fortunately, I like epic family sagas starring a whole bunch of people. I was pleased to find that, far from just being Rajkumar’s love interest as the blurb would indicate, Dolly is a protagonist in her own right (arguably more central than Rajkumar). And Ghosh manages to make subsequent generations of characters equally interesting.

However, this isn’t without a caveat--111 years is a long time to cover in a single volume, and so a lot of time is skipped over. Less than 100 pages into the book, Rajkumar and Dolly are already in their 30s, and that’s only the first of several significant time-skips. Beyond that, I’ll confess to some disappointment with the periods Ghosh chooses to focus on. One-third of this book is devoted to World War II, which so. many. books. have been written about already. The years of post-independence turmoil in Burma, which I have never read about, are dismissed in barely a page. Granted, the book covers facets of WWII that I was unfamiliar with (in particular, the dilemmas faced by the Indian soldiers), and the war was crucial to the end of British colonization in Asia, and these sections are well-written.... but still.

At any rate, now that I’m done quibbling with authorial decisions, on to the good stuff. Because pretty much everything in this book is good stuff. The characters are interesting, diverse and believeable. The plot entertains--yes, there’s a lot of history in it, but for those who want to learn from historical fiction, it’s an excellent balance. The cultural and historical detail are fascinating--from the late-19th-century teak camps to the early-20th-century rubber plantations to the tense streets of 1990’s Yangon. The descriptions are very visual and there’s a real sense of place. The scope of this book is amazing, and for all that, we get to know a lot of places very well. The one place the book goes off the rails a bit is with the romances, which tend toward the melodramatic without giving a clear picture of why the characters are so drawn to each other--but there’s enough (well-done) tragedy that the book avoids becoming saccharine. And thus far I haven’t mentioned the themes, but the discussions of the effects of colonialism, in particular, are certainly worth a read.

So, the verdict: The Glass Palace is a very good book. But it should have been a trilogy.