The Glass Palace

The Glass Palace

Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace is a classic epic novel, spanning generations and countries as it casts a brilliant light on Burmese, Indian and Malayan history, with Burma its focal point.

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The novel, published in 2000, charts the lives of Rajkumar Raha and his family, starting in Mandalay, where he finds himself stranded when the sampan he is working on breaks down. Rajkumar stays on as a restaurant worker, and witnesses the British depose and deport the last king of Burma, Thebaw, and his family, to India in 1885. During the mayhem here he spies a girl he falls in love with, who works for Queen Supayalat, and after making a success of himself in the timber trade thanks to the lover of his former employer, Chinese merchant Saya John, helping him out, he tracks her down in Ratnagiri, where the family lives in exile. Rajkumar and Dolly move back to Burma, where their business thrives as they have two children.

Many threads are woven tightly in this straightforwardly executed novel as the story ricochets between the main Burmese, Indian and Chinese characters and through wars, into the modern era. While the fictional side of the tale enthralled us, what we loved most was the incredibly colourful historical context. Riots, a royal family in exile, the brutality of colonialism, the teak and rubber trade and more are all described in compelling detail. Take for instance the pages devoted to the British transporting teak: “Often the logs came not singly but in groups, dozens of tons of hardwood caroming down the stream together… At times a log would snag… Then at last something would give; a log, nine feet in girth, would snap like a matchstick. With a great detonation the dam would capsize and a tidal wave of wood and water would wash down the slopes of the mountain.”

Call it erudite historical trivia if you like; Ghosh weaves it effortlessly into the story so as a reader you come away feeling enriched as well as entertained. Have you ever heard of Yenangyaung? It’s “one of the few places in the world where petroleum seeped naturally to the surface of the earth”? Did you know anthrax was common in the forests of central Burma and epidemics hard to prevent? “A trail or pathway, tranquil in appearance and judged to be safe after lying many years unused, could reveal itself suddenly to be a causeway to death. In its most virulent forms anthrax could kill an elephant in a matter of hours.” As, naturally, it will do shortly in the text.

And another aside: Did you know the Irish schooled Indian nationalists in the arts of sedition, who were their “mentors and allies, schooling them in their methods of organisation”? “On St Patrick’s Day in New York, a small Indian contingent would sometimes march in the Irish parade, with their own banners, dressed in sherwanis and turbans, dhoties and kurtas, angarkhas and angavastrams.” The details are exhaustive, but never exhausting. We swallowed them all thirstily.

Ghosh breathes beauty into his prose pitched at just the right level, a difficult achievement no doubt in a tale where purple prose could have easily ruled, or cliches heavily relied upon. Consider this as a street fight description: “The arc of blood seemed to stop in its trajectory, hanging suspending in the air, brilliant translucent, like a string of garnets.”

If you're heading to Burma, you'd do well to spend a few days immersed in this, followed by Orwell's Burmese Days and then Andrew Marshall's The Trouser People. Remember, the Burmese are famed for their literacy rates, so you don't want them to show you up on arrival!

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108 results found

Burma (Myanmar)

Burmese Days
Burmese Days

By George Orwell

Finding George Orwell
Finding George Orwell

By Emma Larkin

Miss Burma
Miss Burma

By Charmaine Craig

The Trouser People
The Trouser People

By Andrew Marshall

Cambodia

Dogs at the Perimeter
Dogs at the Perimeter

By Madeleine Thien

Holiday in Cambodia
Holiday in Cambodia

By Laura Jean McKay

Hun Sen’s Cambodia
Hun Sen’s Cambodia

By Sebastian Strangio

Hunters in the Dark
Hunters in the Dark

By Lawrence Osborne

King Norodom's Head
King Norodom's Head

By Steven W. Boswell

River of Time
River of Time

By Jon Swain

The Gate
The Gate

By Francoise Bizot

Indonesia

A House in Bali
A House in Bali

By Colin McPhee

Beauty is a Wound
Beauty is a Wound

By Eka Kurniawan

Black Water
Black Water

By Louise Doughty

Home
Home

By Leila S. Chudori

In the Time of Madness
In the Time of Madness

By Richard Lloyd Parry

Indonesia Etc.
Indonesia Etc.

By Elizabeth Pisani

On the Java Ridge
On the Java Ridge

By Jock Serong

Ring of Fire
Ring of Fire

By Lawrence Blair

The Malay Archipelago
The Malay Archipelago

By Alfred Russel Wallace

The Rainbow Troops
The Rainbow Troops

By Andrea Hirata

The Year of Living Dangerously
The Year of Living Dangerously

By Christopher J. Koch

This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind

By Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano

By Cameron Forbes

Laos

Malaysia

Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians

By Kevin Kwan

From Third World to First
From Third World to First

By Lee Kuan Yew

If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You

By Jing-Jing Lee

In Transit: An Anthology
In Transit: An Anthology

By Zhang Ruihe and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

Sarong Party Girls
Sarong Party Girls

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Singapore Noir
Singapore Noir

By Cheryl Lu-Tien Tan

State of Emergency
State of Emergency

By Jeremy Tiang

Sugarbread
Sugarbread

By Balli Kaur Jaswal

The Tower
The Tower

By Isa Kamari (translated by Alfian Sa'at)

Thailand

A Tiger in Eden
A Tiger in Eden

By Chris Flynn

Bangkok Found
Bangkok Found

By Alex Kerr

Hothouse Flower
Hothouse Flower

By Lucinda Riley

Jasmine Nights
Jasmine Nights

By S.P. Somtow

Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

By Carol Hollinger

Many Lives
Many Lives

By M.R Kukrit Pramoj

Sightseeing
Sightseeing

By Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Thai Street Food
Thai Street Food

By David Thompson

The Beach
The Beach

By Alex Garland

The Drinking Food of Thailand
The Drinking Food of Thailand

By Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

By Richard Flanagan

The Sad Part Was
The Sad Part Was

By Prabda Yoon

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

By Philip Cornwel-Smith

Vietnam

Bright Shining Lie
Bright Shining Lie

By Neil Sheehan

Destination Saigon
Destination Saigon

By Walter Mason

Dragon Apparent
Dragon Apparent

By Norman Lewis

Fishing for Tigers
Fishing for Tigers

By Emily Maguire

The Lover
The Lover

By Marguerite Duras

The Quiet American
The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

The Refugees
The Refugees

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sorrow of War
The Sorrow of War

By Bao Ninh

The Sympathizer
The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried

By Tim O’Brien

When the War Was Over
When the War Was Over

By Elizabeth Becker

General