I got The Glass Palace from a colleague at work and I had no idea what to expect.
In the beginning, the book has the feel of a memoir, a personal story put together with historical facts, starting with the British invasion of Burma at the end of 1885, then going through the Second World War and ending almost in the present day. It spans across generations and several countries, and it begins with introducing Rajkumar, an Indian boy orphaned from an early age who uses his ambition and determination to rise from his humble origins as a poor boy in a foreign land, to a prosperous teak merchant.
The march of the British forces into Burma’s city of Mandalay is the catalyst that sets things in motion and it is at this time that Rajkumar has his first encounter with the Royal family. In the pandemonium that ensues he sees Dolly, one of the queen’s maids and she makes such an impression that years later he goes to search for her. From this love story events start to unfold, and it is their descendants’ lives that the author is following in his narrative.
The author introduces the characters gradually but by the end of the book all of the family connections and their ramifications made it difficult to keep track of how they were related.
One of the themes running through the novel is that of the dispossessed. People separated by war, forced to abandon their country (as was the case with King Thebaw and the royal family – one of my favorite stories within the story), trying to adjust to a new life in a new land.
The action progresses at a steady pace with very few changes. The glimpse into the art of photography, used to add more depth to the romance between two of the characters, was interesting. As I delved deeper into the narrative, I had the feeling that the author manipulated the characters to describe the events of the time, rather than letting their stories become part of the history. Although the roles they had to play were focal points in the narrative, I wish there was more of their stories, rather than the story of the times they lived in. But that’s just me.
The end is touching and provides a suitable finish to the tale, bringing back that intimate feeling from the beginning of the book.