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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Glass Palace

Amitav Ghosh

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To purchase The Glass Palace

Title: The Glass Palace
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 472 pages
Availability: The Glass Palace - US
The Glass Palace - UK
The Glass Palace - Canada
Le Palais des miroirs - France
Der Glaspalast - Deutschland
  • The Glass Palace was the Eurasian regional winner in the "Best Book" category of the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize, making the book a finalist for the prize itself. Mr. Ghosh was apparently not aware that his publishers had submitted his book, and he withdrew it upon learning that he had won the regional round. See Ghosh's page on "Tracking the Controversy" for his explanation and reactions to it.

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Our Assessment:

B : sprawling, uneven historical-political saga, unsure of exactly what it wants to be

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 2/2001 Stephen Amidon
Berliner Zeitung A 17/2/2001 Sabine Vogel
Christian Science Monitor A 8/2/2001 Heather Hewett
Daily Telegraph . 14/7/2000 David Robson
The Hindu A+ 1/10/2000 Meenakshi Mukherjee
The Hindustan Times A 29/7/2000 Nilanjana S. Roy
India Today . 17/7/2000 A S. Prasannarajan
The LA Times A- 11/2/2001 Marina Budhos
London Review of Books A 19/4/2001 Michael Wood
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 7/8/2001 Claudia Wenner
The New Yorker A 12/3/2001 .
The NY Rev. of Books B+ 8/3/2001 Pico Iyer
The NY Times Book Rev. B 11/2/2001 Pankaj Mishra
The Sunday Times B 6/8/2000 Hugo Barnacle
The Sunday Tribune A 22/10/2000 Akshaya Kumar
Der Tagesspiegel B- 14/4/2001 Peter Köhler
The Times A 5/7/2000 Ruth Scurr
TLS . 14/7/2000 Helen Hayward
The Washington Post B+ 25/3/2001 Gregory Feeley
Die Zeit A (13/2001) Gabriele Venzky

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Some very enthusiastic (especially critics in India), some quite disappointed.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ghosh's narrative cools as he depicts the family's interwoven stories, his fervent opening chapters giving way to a more objective sensibility. The historical forces that served as the love story's lush background begin to overcome the characters." - Stephen Amidon, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Ghosh erfindet eine rasende Dramaturgie der Begegnungen, die jeden Zweifel am Schicksalhaften des Zufalls ausräumt und in der die Liebe wie der Krieg als Naturgewalten hereinbrechen." - Sabine Vogel, Berliner Zeitung

  • "Ghosh spins his tale with harrowing precision and insight, leaving the reader with a lingering disquiet about how the forces of history can irrevocably alter the lives of ordinary men and women." - Heather Hewett, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Some of the writing is rather opaque and a glossary might have been helpful. (...) But some stodgy moments are offset by passages of real flair, where the urgency of great events sweeps the reader along." - David Robson, Daily Telegraph

  • "No one is directly indicted in the novel, not a single person idealised. Yet casually mentioned details get linked across space and time to form haunting patterns, their cumulative effect staying with the reader long after the novel is over. For all its vividness of description and range of human experiences, The Glass Palace will remain for me memorable mainly as the most scathing critique of British colonialism I have ever come across in fiction." - Meenakshi Mukherjee, The Hindu

  • "The five years Amitav Ghosh spent on this book have paid off, spectacularly: this is the mother of all historical epics, set against the backdrop of a country we should know but have eased out of our minds. (...) The first 200-odd pages of The Glass Palace are a revelation. Seldom has a novelist been able to assemble quite such a cast of characters against quite such a canvas, and having done so, seldom has a novelist had the good sense to step back out of the frame and let them tell their story." - Nilanjana S. Roy, The Hindustan Times

  • "(B)ig, bold, ambitious. It's novel as an event. Two centuries, three generations, three countries -- the size of its life is finely balanced by the enormity of its ideas. Here in this book of memory and movement, the agony of the refugee illuminates the idea of exodus, the power of the empire enhances the powerlessness of its keepers, freedom neutralises choice, and displacement is a permanent state of the dreamer. It's the human interest story of the great Indian diaspora, its loss and longing in the time of war and colonialism." - S. Prasannarajan, India Today

  • "For all this book's bleak intelligence about empire and freedom, it is a deeply romantic work. I say this more in admiration than complaint, but nevertheless with some surprise." - Michael Wood, London Review of Books

  • "Still, there is something irresistible about the novel's ambition and how thoroughly it dissects the impact of the British colonial enterprise. The Glass Palace, like its far-ranging subject, is capacious; it reflects the author's own curiosity and hunger for understanding." - Marina Budhos, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Ghosh hat die Materialfülle so gekonnt aufbereitet und verlebendigt, dass man den fast 600 Seiten die Mühe niemals anmerkt. Wie er ein Stück kaum bekannter Geschichte so belichtet, dass man sich als Leser nie belehrt fühlt oder langweilt, ist beachtlich und gleichzeitig das Problem." - Claudia Wenner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The book's memorial power is so strong that, near the end, when Rajkumar, an old man, reflects, "Ah, Burma -- now Burma was a golden land," the reader catches himself nodding in recognition of what was lost." - The New Yorker

  • "The Glass Palace performs an invaluable service in showing us how the events of the last century, and especially the war, looked to many people in Burma and India, whose voices have seldom been heard before in the West; but its narrative is obscured occasionally by an abundance of detail, occasionally by political argument." - Pico Iyer, The New York Review of Books

  • "Ghosh's inquiry loses its focus, however, as he alternates accounts of passionate sex on beaches and in forests with set pieces about battles and migrations. The narrative goes into the epic mode too often, and the prose, while lazily reaching out for the ready-made phrase (...), often comes dangerously close to kitsch. Ghosh keeps introducing fresh settings and characters, without giving them enough time and space to grow." - Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(C)ommercial rather than literary fiction, a marked comedown for a writer of Ghosh's proven talent. (...) The prose trundles along on deeply uninspiring lines." - Hugo Barnacle, The Sunday Times

  • "The novel outdoes theory as well as history in terms of its subtle treatment of colonialism. The Glass Palace is an instance of novel overtaking history as an authentic and reliable source of understanding the micro-level subtleties of colonial politics. Except for Uma's rather long and prosaic speeches on colonialism, the novel has the makings of a classic." - Akshaya Kumar, The Sunday Tribune

  • "Wer große realistische Literatur schreiben will, kann leicht in die Falle der Banalität tappen. Es mag dabei gut lesbarer Stoff herauskommen, gute Literatur noch lange nicht. Amitav Ghoshs ehrgeiziger, aber dem Allerweltsgeschmack verhängnisvoll verpflichteter Roman Der Glaspalast ist ein Beispiel." - Peter Köhler, Der Tagesspiegel

  • "Even more astonishing than his ambitious plot is Ghosh's technique for executing it. The key to this is the pace. Characters meet and marry within sentences. (...) But if it is fast, The Glass Palace is also rigorously controlled. Ghosh is a deeply serious writer, sure of his human and historical insights, and confident in his ability to communicate them. I cannot think of another contemporary writer with whom it would be this thrilling to go so far, so fast." - Ruth Scurr, The Times

  • "By the careful accumulation of a throng of interconnected stories, Ghosh succeeds in elaborating a complex canvas which, evocative of the diversity of individual experience, depicts the matrix of political and economic pressures in which it is caught." - Helen Hayward, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)ts weak stretches are hard to overlook. (...) When he focuses on detail, however, Ghosh can be remarkably effective." - Gregory Feeley, The Washington Post

  • "(E)ine faszinierende Familiensaga. Wie ein Bilderbuch wird die jüngste Geschichte dieser turbulenten Region aufgeschlagen. (...) Leider ist die vorliegende deutsche Übersetzung absolut missraten. Was da dem Leser an betulichem und gestelztem Deutsch vorgesetzt wird, was alles falsch übersetzt ist -- oder gar nicht, wenn es offenbar zu schwierig wurde --, ist schlicht eine Zumutung." - Gabriele Venzky, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Glass Palace begins in Burma, literally in its last days of independence before the British finally completely subjugated it in 1885. Ghosh starts off nicely, contrasting the story of a young orphaned Indian boy, Rajkumar, with that of the imperious but doomed Burmese royal family.
       Rajkumar's family comes from Akyab, "the principal port of the Arakan -- that tidewater stretch of coast where Burma and Bengal collide in a whirlpool of unease." All his family died of a fever that passed through the town, including the last survivor, his mother, who had tried to ship back to the ancestral home of Chittagong with Rajkumar. After his mother died the boy stayed to work on the boat, having no where else to go. In Mandalay, the Burmese royal capital, the boat needed extensive repairs, and during the wait Rajkumar went to work and live at a small food stall in town. He is there when the British invade and overthrow the monarchy.
       Ghosh describes the court of Queen Supayalat and King Thebaw, focussing especially on one of the attendants, a young girl named Dolly who is the only one who can handle one of the infant princesses. Ghosh's account of the British invasion -- calm, forceful, overwhelming -- and the brief chaos in the great palace afterwards is very good. For much of the novel he then also follows the story of the royal family in their sad Indian exile.
       The novel also follows the change in Burma, as the British exploit their colony and the teak industry comes to dominate the nation. Rajkumar remains in Burma, taken under the wing of Saya John -- another orphan, from Malacca, who looks Chinese but is a sort of everyman, comfortable in the entire South-East Asian area. They work in the lumber industry, accumulating some wealth, gaining greater independence.
       One of the most successful aspects of the book is that Ghosh has outsiders and foreigners -- Indians in Burma, for example -- taking advantage of the situation the British have created. The Indians themselves are victims of colonialism, but they also use it. Rajkumar and others are compromised, owing much of their success to the British, while the Burmese are presented entirely as victims. (Note that Ghosh himself was born to Burmese parents, in Calcutta. From the too-noble royal family up (or downwards) he barely presents a Burmese who isn't near-flawless, at least until he gets to U Ne Win.) Complicity with Empire also crops up in a different guise later specifically regarding Indians serving in the British armed forces.
       The first chunk of this large book has a number of strands, but Ghosh manages to hold the reader's interest easily with the exotic locales and swift changes forced on them and the characters. He does, however, get bogged down at times. History is part of the problem: Ghosh feels compelled to explain the events not just from the characters' point of view but also to provide a gloss for readers who are unlikely to know the details. He tries a variety of approaches in providing this information, but they rarely fit smoothly in the rest of the story. This continues to be a problem throughout the novel, growing worse towards the end.
       Ghosh also feels compelled to explain details about logging and elephant-handling and the motor-cars of the day and much else. The information is interesting, but rarely does he integrate it smoothly in his narrative. Certain details -- a page on anthrax, for example -- read as though they had been cut out of an encyclopedia and pasted in the text: "The word anthrax comes from the same root as anthracite, a variety of coal." etc.
       History speeds up. Rajkumar grows up and, with Saya John's help, becomes a successful businessman as well. Eventually he will go seek out the girl he saw only briefly in Mandalay years before, the young attendant Dolly.
       Rajkumar is happy in Burma, but times move on. The next big thing is rubber, and many of the multiplying characters head to Malaya to make another fortune.
       World War II rolls around and brings turmoil. The Japanese invasion of Malaya means everyone must flee -- or at least try to. The novel then careens to its end in modern Myanmar (Burma).
       The family saga -- centered mainly around Rajkumar and Saya John and their families and circle -- is much like the usual big family novel. All the types are present. In the later generations there is the sensitive photographer Dinu and the soldier Arjun (and Alison, the woman they are both attracted to). There is Uma, greeted by huge crowds wherever she appears. And many more.
       There is a great deal of good material here and fine local colour and exciting times. Surprisingly, then, it is also a plodding novel, advancing in fits and spurts, with Ghosh uncertain of where and what and who to focus on. The stories he ties together are occasionally too disparate, the links seeming too forced.
       In large part this seems to be because Ghosh seems uncertain of what he wanted the novel to be. Because, beyond presenting a family saga of turbulent times, Ghosh also wrote a commentary on the colonial experience and its legacy. One might have expected any such theme to be neatly woven into the story itself, but in Ghosh's novel it largely stands out, too separate and distinct. His efforts in this direction, though occasionally successful in their own right, don't work particularly well in this setting. The novel tries to be too many things, without being any of those exceptionally well.
       It is unfortunate: Ghosh's political strand is an interesting one. He brings a welcome focus on Indians in the military service, doing the British Empire's dirty work. Two-thirds of the soldiers that routed the Burmese in 1885 were Indian sepoys, he reminds readers early on. The role of Indians in the British armed forces remains a significant one throughout the novel. As cries for Indian independence grow louder the role of Indians in the armed forces becomes more controversial. Here it culminates with Arjun and his fellow-soldiers and the issues they face in World War II. It is worthy stuff, and Ghosh presents much of this well, painting the issue not merely black and white but in its whole (and often very human) complexity.
       Unfortunately, much of this sticks out like a sore thumb in the book. Ghosh often writes quite well, but the shifts from these issues to some sappy romance scenes to lumbering explanations of the businesses of the day to airy photography-talk make for a muddle. Often it feels like The Glass Palace is several novels, spliced up and edited into one. The continuing story of the Burmese royal family in exile and then back in Burma is quite fascinating and well-done: Ghosh gets the noble tragedy of it down well. But it also dangles at a loose end for much of the novel, too significant to just be background, but not sufficiently integrated into much of the story.
       The history and politics are also a problem. Ghosh feels he needs to explain (as perhaps he does to a Western audience), but he does so neither well (the textbook-like interruptions bring the narrative to screeching halts) nor adequately. Only a few incidents are covered in sufficient depth. Important figures are thrown into the fray, briefly mentioned, and then disappear again. The historical complexity is reduced to stick-figure simplicity -- problematic in a book ostensibly dealing with these issues. Ghosh does fine in the Malayan jungle, with isolated troops figuring out the meaning of all this: who they should be loyal to, what they are fighting for. But the true historical picture, the political issues and conflicts, remain largely incoherent.
       The book's rushed end, dealing with Burma's recent history, is also less than satisfying. Ghosh clearly meant to comment also on the tragic current situation in Myanmar/Burma, but he approaches it warily. The ostensible connexions to the rest of the book also seem forced.
       The Glass Palace is an often interesting and engaging read. It is also frustrating and often disappointing.
       Early on Ghosh describes the Burmese Queen in exile, suggesting one of the thoughts in her head as rare visitors see how far she has fallen:

We were the first to be imprisoned in the name of their progress; millions more will follow. This is what awaits us all: this is how we will all end -- as prisoners, in shantytowns born of the plague. A hundred years hence you will read the indictment of Europe's greed in the difference between the Kingdom of Siam and the state of our own enslaved realm.
       It is a telling passage. It makes clear Ghosh's stance: modern Myanmar -- bad, modern Thailand -- good. (It is again a gross simplification -- but it is clearly a point Ghosh wishes to make: the passage would have been equally effective without any mention of Siam or prospective comparison.)
       Far more significant is that Ghosh implies the horrors of colonialism truly only began at this time, in the 1880s, and that what happened before pales against the harmful imprisonment and the specific type of capitalist exploitation that followed. Some argument can be made for this: many outrages of Empire did occur in these times, from the carving up of Africa to the use of Indian sepoys to subjugate Indians themselves, and others, in the name of England to the economic, ecological, and moral devastation wreaked in much of the world. Still, it is a curious spin to put on colonialism.
       Ultimately we would have preferred one or the other: the political novel, focussing on the consequences of Empire, or the family saga. As is, The Glass Palace is an uncomfortable mix of the two.
       Ghosh's writing is remarkably uneven. There are a number of fine passages, but especially the factual ones -- as he discusses everything from car-makes to KLM flights in the region to politics -- stand out distractingly. (Rare exceptions include some of the passages on teak-logging.) There are also moments when his pen gets away from him completely. So, for example, a scene where Jaya is using the Internet:
She rested her fingers on the keyboard and took a deep breath. Then she typed in the words "Ilongo Alagappan" and hit "enter".
       The search engine quivered, like a hound that had sniffed a hot trail. For a long, nerve-racking minute, an icon winked on the monitor. Suddenly the screen quivered again and a message appeared.
       "The search engine quivered " ? What on earth is he talking about ? The search engine quivered "like a hound that had sniffed a hot trail" ? Sounds like something out of a bad TV commercial. And then it is the screen that is quivering -- "again" ? When was it quivering the first time ? Such sloppy overwriting unfortunately crops up too frequently.
       In his extensive Author's Note Ghosh mentions he read hundreds of books and travelled thousands of miles researching his novel. The surfeit of material and impressions seems to have done far more harm than good.
       Ghosh also thanks numerous people, including four editors. And here we were, thinking there were no more editors out there in the publishing world ! This begs the question, however, of what these editors were doing. Ghosh's sprawling, unevenly written book does not read like a finely-edited novel. On the face of it it doesn't look edited at all (though admittedly we are not familiar with Ghosh's original draft, which might have looked far different from this version). The novel fits together badly -- so perhaps different editors were responsible for different sections of it ? Or perhaps it is merely proof that too many editors spoil the soup.
       (Note that a mistake in the last line of the book in the British edition -- a sentence which "seems to have slipped a grammatical cog somewhere" as Hugo Barnacle put it in his review in The Sunday Times -- seems to have been corrected for the US edition. But we remind readers again: there were four editors at work here. And maybe even a proofreader somewhere along the line (though obviously not at the end of the line).)

       There are several worthwhile novels in The Glass Palace, struggling to break out. As is, it is a largely unexceptional read with some fine touches and interesting points. But if you want to read about Burma Maurice Collis still provides more entertainment (and local colour). And F. Tennyson Jesse's The Lacquer Lady offers a fictionally more satisfying account of Queen Supayalat.
       Nearly a good novel, but not quite.

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The Glass Palace: Reviews: Amitav Ghosh: Other books by Amitav Ghosh under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian author Amitav Ghosh currently lives in New York.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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