Synopses & Reviews
Set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, this masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh tells the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who goes on to create an empire in the Burmese teak forest. When soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen, whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her. The struggles that have made Burma, India, and Malaya the places they are today are illuminated in this wonderful novel by the writer Chitra Divakaruni
calls "a master storyteller."
"[A] beguiling and endlessly resourceful storyteller....Ghosh vividly brings to life the history of Burma and Malaya over a century of momentous change in this teeming, multigenerational saga." Publishers Weekly
"[A] rich tapestry of a novel....This illuminating saga should find an appreciative audience." Booklist
"An absorbing story of a world in transition, brought to life through characters who love and suffer with equal intensity." J. M. Coetzee
"There is no denying Ghosh's command of culture and history....[He] proves a writer of supreme skill and intelligence." The Atlantic Monthly
"I will never forget the young and old Rajkumar, Dolly, the Princesses, the forests of teak, the wealth that made families and wars. A wonderful novel. An incredible story." Grace Paley
"A rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland a literary territory that is as resonant now, in our globalized culture, as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A novelist of dazzling ingenuity." San Francisco Chronicle
"Ghosh ranges from the condescension of the British colonialists to the repression of the current Myanmar (Burmese) regime in a style that suggests E. M. Forster
as well as James Michener
. Highly recommended." Library Journal
Brilliant and exotic, The Glass Palace
is a superb novel of love, war, and family by "an exceptional writer" (Peter Matthiessen
). Set in Burma, this exquisite novel begins with the shattering of a kingdom and the igniting of a great and passionate love, and it goes on to tell the story of a people, a fortune, and a family's fate. Woven into this stunning work is the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of the political and social chaos occasioned by the British invasion of 1885, when soldiers forced the royal family into exile from the glass palace. Rajkumar then sees the woman whose love would shape his life.
About the Author
Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and spent his childhood in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and northern India. He studied in Delhi and Egypt and at Oxford and taught at various Indian and American universities. Author of a travel book and three acclaimed novels, Ghosh has also written for Granta, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Observer. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
Reading Group Guide
1. In an interview, Amitav Ghosh said of his work, The Glass Palace, “one can examine the truths of individuals in history definitely more completely in fiction than one can in history.” Discuss this statement as it pertains to the novel. Which truths do his characters reveal?
2. Look closely at the characters whom Ghosh envisions in the most detail, Rajkumar, Dolly, Uma, Arjun, to name a few. They become extraordinary in our minds of the reader, as we travel with them through a century of social upheaval and political turmoil. But according to the social structure, they are all, or once were, relatively ordinary individuals. What is the effect of focusing a novel of such grand, epic sweep, on members of common society? How does this very subtle choice affect the storys shape? What does it tell us about history, and how we have always been taught to remember it?
3. Memory could almost be considered a character unto itself in Ghoshs novel. For instance, Rajkumars life is utterly driven and shaped by his one, striking, boyhood memory of Dolly in the plundered Glass Palace during the invasion of Burma. How does memory play into the lives of Ghoshs other characters? Can you think of examples where memory compelled a character to action, or impeded him from recognizing a particular truth? To what extent does Ghosh suggest the existence of collective memory?
4. Ghosh raises several debates over the course of the novel, one central to the political subtext being that of Imperialism vs. Fascism. Why does society not look upon Imperial soldiers with the same scorn it holds for those soldiers committing atrocities under fascist regimes? Should these Imperial mercenaries be considered willing and conscious henchmen, or were they merely following orders? What stance does Ghosh take on this issue, if any? What other debates were you able to extract from the book? What techniques does Ghosh use to bring these issues and their various arguments to light?
5. Ghosh constructs several unique, remarkable, and strong female characters: Dolly, Uma, Queen Supayalat, even the First Princess, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Each of these women tells us something different and important about the time and place in which she was living. What strengths do these women express, and at what points are they identified and illuminated in the novel? In examining the range and evolution of Ghoshs female characters, what could we conclude about the relationship between feminine domesticity and empire? Where and how do the two intersect? What role do women play under colonialism, and how do Ghoshs characters either reflect or reject it?
6. Uma is a particularly interesting character, as she illuminates one of the ideas central to Ghosh's novel. When we first encounter her, she is constantly worried about being the proper memsahib, following traditional domestic etiquette, and living up to the standards of her husband, the Collector. She soon realized, however, that her husbands dream was not in accordance with the rules of Indian custom, he longed “to live with a woman as an equal in spirit and intellect,” and she could never, according to custom, fulfill those expectations. We see a monumental change in her disposition when she returns to India from New York. How has she transformed, and by what force? What does Umas character tell us about the nature of history and the power of social forces as factors in everyday life?
7. Over the course of the novel, the division between conquerors and conquered becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. The inevitable ethical dilemma faced by Indian soldiers in the British army comes to the foreground of the novel, as one member of the INA challenges Indian soldiers in the British army, “Do you really wish to sacrifice your lives for an Empire that has kept your country in slavery for two hundred years?” Can you think of any other episodes in which Ghosh highlights this argument? How does this debate affect the course and scope of the story?
8. In several episodes, Ghosh asks the question, both of his readers and of his characters; can submission to an oppressor, in certain instances, be a sign of strength, rather than weakness? For example, at the very outset of the novel, Rajkumar is heartbroken when he sees Dolly marching out of Burma in the royal procession, offering the sweets he gave her as a token of his affection to one of the British guards. Was this a sign of strength on Dollys part? How does this foreshadow other events in the novel? What do such episodes tell us about the effect of colonialism, both on the individual and the collective?
9. In The Glass Palace Ghosh examines the individual, psychological dilemmas posed by colonialism. At one point, an Indian officer in the British army during World War II exclaims, “What are we? Weve learned to dance the tango and we know how to eat roast beef with a knife and fork. The truth is that except for the color of our skin, most people in India wouldnt even recognize us as Indians.” This quest for and recognition of personal identity, both lost and found, figures prominently in the novel. Where do we see this pursuit played out? How does Ghosh reconcile the notions of personal identity and national identity? Is one derivative of the other?
10. Exile and return are themes that lie at the core of The Glass Palace. We see King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat living out their exiles in Ratnagiri, we also experience Dollys flight from and return to Burma. Even Rajkumar appears in a constant state of escape and return, from his early abandonment at age 11. What other stories of exile and return play out over the course of the book? How do these individual cycles contribute to the overall structure of the novel?
11. At various points in the book, Ghosh invokes the art of photography. We are encounter photographers throughout the novel, and find ourselves in a photography shop at the storys close. Where else does photography enter the story, and how does it serve as a thematic thread? How does Ghosh weave the theme of photography into the overarching ideas about history and memory that permeate his novel? How does the photographers art relate to Ghoshs conception of the human heart and mind?
12. The style of The Glass Palace is elliptical, and at times, uneven. Ghosh dedicates an entire paragraph to describing the camera with which Mrs. Khambatta photographed Dolly and Rajkumars wedding, yet the actual ceremony takes place, elliptically, when Ghosh writes, “At the end of the civil ceremony, in the Collectors ‘camp office, Dolly and Rajkumar garlanded each other, smiling like children.” Other such major life events occur in only sentences, the births of children, the deaths of loved ones, wars, and other national catastrophes. Do you think this was an intentional literary choice on Ghoshs part? What effect does it have on the book as a whole, on your perception of the characters and their stories?
13. As much defeat as there is present in The Glass Palace, there are also extraordinary tales of survival and hope. Can you think of some examples by which devastating defeat is countered by enormous hope? What claims does Ghosh make about the human spirit in this novel?