impressive, ambitious and extraordinarily imagined new novel from a Columbia anthropologist and New Yorker writer chronicles the modern history of Burma, from the 1885 British invasion to the political turmoil of present day Myanmar (as Burma is now called). The events are seen primarily through the eyes of Rajkumar Raha, an intrepid 11-year-old Indian orphan who finds himself on the eve of the British invasion stranded in Mandalay. A romantic and ambitious boy, Rajukmar becomes enthralled with the large fort that houses the Burmese royal family, vowing to "find a way in" the Glass Palace, the compound's inner sanctum, named for its "shining crystal walls and mirrored ceilings." His chance comes sooner than he imagined. When British troops invade and loot the royal compound, the locals stampede the Glass Palace, searching for treasure. Therein, Rajkumar encounters 10-year-old Dolly, the queen's favorite and most beautiful maid. Instantly smitten, Rajkumar is crushed when, a day or so later, Dolly departs with the rest of the royal entourage, who have been exiled to India.
The first half of the novel follows Rajkumar, who makes his fortune in the teak industry, and Dolly, who plods through her days in Ratnagiri, the remote Indian town to which the Burmese royal family are exiled. Almost 20 years later, Rajkumar finds Dolly and convinces her to marry him. In the novel's second half the plot shifts, focusing on Rajkumar and Dolly's grown children and Uma's nieces and nephew. Although the various entanglements and dilemmas of this younger generation prove compelling, some of these characters have the feel of props, inserted in order to illustrate some aspect of the horrors of war and colonialism.
This is a small complaint, however, and one that perhaps should not be applied to an epic, episodic novel of this sort. For The Glass Palace resembles less a contemporary American plot-driven novel, than a sprawling work like Dos Passos' USA or a Greek epic. This is a major accomplishment from an important writer, worth reading if only for a greater understanding of Burmese and Indian history, and for a great thinker's perspective on the problems of colonialism and post-colonialism.
Joanna Smith Rakoff is the book editor for Shout magazine.